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Waupun prison mess demands plan from the top

It’s hard to imagine the Waupun prison rehabilitating criminals if it can’t even provide the basic necessities of life.

Donald Maier, 62, serving 15 years for stalking, told a doctor at the prison in February he needed “water, water, water, all the water in the world,” according to a criminal complaint.

The doctor informed staff. Yet eight days later, Maier died in a cell, having asked for water multiple times over the previous two days while his water was restricted because he had flooded his room. Maier wasn’t fed or didn’t consume eight of 12 meals over four days, according to investigators, and was seen drinking from a toilet. Staff did not intervene multiple times when he was unresponsive on the floor.

Maier likely died of dehydration and malnutrition, according to a medical examiner, though his heart, kidney and mental health were likely contributing factors.

Another inmate died from a fentanyl overdose and stroke Oct. 29 at the prison, about 55 miles northeast of Madison. His body wasn’t found for at least 12 hours, according to Dodge County Sheriff Dale Schmidt, and prison staff were falsely reporting hourly check-ins — a practice supervisors allegedly knew about.

Those are just a few of the disturbing details in criminal complaints filed last week against the prison’s warden, Randall Hepp, and eight other employees in connection with the two deaths. The warden “retired” the week before he was arrested and charged with misconduct in public office. Other staff are accused of misconduct or neglecting inmates.

The charges demand further investigation at the prison and hearings at the Capitol to ensure such disregard for human life doesn’t continue. Lawmakers also should insist on an independent and broader assessment of the prison system and training.

Many prisons are over capacity and understaffed. Forty-three percent of correctional staff and sergeant positions in Waupun were vacant last week. But that’s no excuse for failing to maintain basic care.

Gov. Tony Evers is demanding accountability at the Waupun Correctional Institution, which is welcome. He and the Legislature raised the starting pay of prison guards in the latest state budget to help attract more workers. About 14% of positions were vacant last week across all Department of Corrections adult facilities.

But this is about so much more. Wisconsin for decades has locked up twice as many people as neighboring Minnesota. Wisconsin, with 22,000 inmates, spends more per capita on prisons than all surrounding states, and more on prisons — $1.4 billion last year — than its university system.

The charges in Dodge County last week were just the latest reports of terrible conditions at the Waupun and Green Bay prisons, which are more than a century old. Lockdowns and lawsuits have marred the facilities for years, and the governor asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into contraband smuggling.

Calls to close the Waupun and Green Bay institutions deserve renewed analysis and consideration. Similar to Dane County, which recently approved a new jail, the state may need a modern facility to house its most violent offenders that’s more efficient for staff, services and security.

The governor may have inherited a troubled prison system. But his administration doesn’t seem to be improving things much if at all.

Taxpayers need a clear plan from the governor and Jared Hoy, his new Department of Corrections secretary, for a better prison system that’s humane and effective at rehabilitation. Most inmates will eventually get out. Helping them beat addictions, train for jobs and find housing before they’re released deserves higher priority.

What’s your plan, governor? Wisconsin needs to know how you’re going to fix this.

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