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The role correctional officers play at Waupun Correctional Institution

The Waupun Correctional Institution
Morry Gash
The Waupun Correctional Institution is seen Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Waupan, Wis. Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp was jailed Wednesday hours before a scheduled news conference where officials planned to discuss the findings of investigations into multiple deaths at the facility.

The investigation into Waupun Correctional Institute is still ongoing, but so far the warden and eight corrections officers have been charged after four deaths at the prison.

The deaths happened while the prison was in a lockdown that lasted for almost eight months. One of the reasons the prison gave for the lockdown was a lack of staffing.

While there's been a good amount of local reporting into the prison, the role of correction officers, and the tolls of the job, haven't been as explored. Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative has researched the challenges of the job, including hiring and retaining staff.

"The framing the [Department of Corrections] did around this issue was, 'we're understaffed so we have to put the population on lockdown,'" Bertram says. "What they're trying to imply is that, once we hire some more staff, then all these problems are going to go away, which doesn't square with the fact that, as it's been reported at the beginning of the lockdown, administrators said that this was about bad behavior by prisoners. So, there's there's an inconsistent story that's coming from the state about why these lockdowns happened."

There are also inherent challenges involved with hiring more staff.

"One of the few national studies that has been done found that of almost 4,000 corrections professionals from all over the country, about one third of people in security roles in prisons and jails have PTSD," says Bertram. "State studies found similar numbers as well."

This challenge was compounded during the pandemic when many correctional officer left the field and never returned.

"It’s harder in the wake of COVID-19 for facilities to hire," Bertram says. "I also want to note that if the state of Wisconsin is incarcerating more and more people then it’s going to have a hard time keeping the staff-to-incarcerated people ratio where it should be."

Bertram suggests an alternative focal point: upwards of 90% of people who are in prison will come home someday.

"If you look at it from that rational perspective, it's hard not to see how decarceration is essential and how it's important," says Bertram.


Jimmy is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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