Wisconsin prison warden quits amid lockdown, federal smuggling investigation

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The warden at a troubled Wisconsin prison will step down later this month amid lockdown conditions, an ongoing federal investigation and multiple inmate deaths.

Waupun Correctional Institution Warden Randall Hepp announced his resignation on Tuesday, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. The newspaper obtained an email Hepp sent to prison staff in which he wrote his decision wasn't easy but he believes it will serve the institution well. He added that the prison has moved closer toward improving safety.

State Department of Corrections spokesperson Beth Hardtke told The Associated Press on Sunday that Hepp actually announced his retirement, not his resignation. She did not respond to a request for a copy of his Tuesday email. Gov. Tony Evers spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, referred questions to DOC officials.

Brad Mlodzik, who previously worked as deputy warden at Waupun, will take over as warden there on June 30, the State Journal reported.

A chronic lack of guards forced the state Department of Corrections to institute a lockdown at Waupun as well as at prisons in Green Bay and Stanley. Agency officials have labeled the restrictions “modified movement” rather than calling them a lockdown because they can adjust them over time.

Waupun inmates filed a federal lawsuit in October alleging the conditions amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. That lawsuit is still pending. Stanley resumed normal operations in late November. Movement restrictions have eased at Waupun and Green Bay, but some remain in place. According to the Department of Corrections' latest update in April, in-person visitation had not resumed at Waupun and recreation time was still limited but inmates had been issued electronic tablets they can use to make phone calls and send emails and texts.

Cudaback, Evers' spokesperson, said in March that federal authorities are investigating an apparent smuggling ring involving Waupun Correctional employees. She said then that multiple sweeps of the prison revealed people were obtaining prohibited items such as cellphones and illegal drugs. At least 11 prison employees have been suspended since May 2023 in connection with the probe.

Four inmates have died at Waupun since June 2023. One killed himself in solitary confinement, one died of a fentanyl overdose and another died of a stroke. The fourth inmate was found dead at the facility in February. His death remains under investigation. The daughter of the inmate who killed himself in solitary confinement has filed a federal lawsuit alleging Waupun officials failed to provide him with adequate mental health care and medication.

Hepp took over as warden at Waupun in May 2020. He began his career in the state prison system in 1984 as a guard at Dodge Correctional Institution.