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Waupun prison guards accused of abusing dozens of inmates

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Bill Lueders/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
July 20, 2014

Marvin Smith still has scars from his time at Waupun Correctional Institution — on his hand, wrists and leg. His injuries were received on Jan. 3, 2013, in the state prison's segregation unit.

Smith, 26, in a federal lawsuit he filed himself, alleged abuse by prison guards. He said they purposely injured his wrists and arms, put him in a choke hold, smashed his face into a cell door and twisted his ankle. Smith insisted he was not resisting.

The defendants denied the allegations and portrayed Smith as the aggressor, saying he “violently pulled” a guard's hand into his cell, causing injury, and refused to obey directives. Smith, a convicted armed robber, was disciplined over the incident with an additional 11 months in segregation, commonly called solitary confinement.

Smith's claims of abuse by state correctional officers, though rejected by prison officials, are similar to allegations made by dozens of other inmates at the prison 55 miles northeast of Madison.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has identified 40 allegations of physical or psychological abuse by correctional officers against inmates in Waupun's segregation unit since 2011. The allegations, involving 33 inmates, allege extreme mistreatment, including being beaten and stomped on while handcuffed behind their backs. (For a spreadsheet summary, see http://bit.ly/waupunallegations.)

In many cases, prison records document the use of Tasers, pepper spray, knee strikes, wall slams, takedowns and other measures, but describe these as a necessary response to inmate behavior. Commonly the inmates are disciplined or even charged with crimes over these incidents.

Two-thirds of the allegations of abuse involve a single guard, Joseph Beahm, who, according to the Department of Corrections, has worked continuously in the segregation unit at Waupun since October 2006. State prison officials have defended Beahm, and records show he has never been disciplined for improper treatment of inmates. Beahm did not respond to interview requests.

These allegations have been made in federal lawsuits, sworn affidavits, interviews, internal complaints and other prison records, and letters to state officials and Peg Swan, a retired nurse's aide who advocates on behalf of inmates. Swan has been trying for months to call attention to the allegations.

“I don't know what has to happen for these guys to be believed,” Swan said.

At least 15 lawsuits have been filed by inmates since 2011 alleging abuse by guards in the segregation unit at Waupun; nine are pending. The other six have been dismissed.

University of Wisconsin law professor Walter Dickey, who headed the state prison system from 1983 to 1987, said the allegations merit investigation.

“When you have allegations that are as extensive as these, the continued legitimacy of the system requires that you investigate them with integrity so the public will have confidence in the conclusions that are reached,” he said. “And then you let the chips fall where they fall.”

The state Department of Corrections, which runs the state prison system, maintains the inmates making these allegations are lying.

This summer, the DOC is conducting a three-month pilot project at Waupun, in which segregation unit officers wear cameras on their chests or eyeglasses to record their interactions. DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab said that Waupun correctional staff “requested the opportunity to pilot the cameras due to the high number of false accusations.”

The DOC is also creating a new Office of Special Operations to investigate alleged staff misconduct statewide so “staff falsely accused can be exonerated more quickly and returned to work.”

Waupun Warden William Pollard, in a statement, noted that the maximum-security prison houses some of the state's most violent criminals. “In some cases, inmates make allegations in an attempt to manufacture lawsuits, gain public sympathy and get attention,” he said.

DOC secretary Ed Wall declined an interview request but provided a written statement saying all assault allegations are taken seriously.

“Every allegation of assault that is brought to the attention of staff is investigated,” Wall said. “During the past several years, there have been no substantiated allegations of staff on inmate abuse at Waupun Correctional Institution.”

A PROBLEMATIC STRUCTURE

The wave of allegations of abuse at Waupun comes during a time of growing national concern about the use of segregation for inmates, especially those with mental illness.

Inmates in segregation are confined to their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. The cells feature concrete and steel furnishings, one small window and a steel trap door through which food and medication are passed. A regular segregation cell measures 6 feet 2 inches by 12 feet. Segregation is commonly used as a punishment for misbehavior.

Wall, citing the growing national debate, in April sent a memo to DOC staff indicating his desire to rethink the use of segregation in Wisconsin. “Are we placing inmates in segregation because we are mad at them (or) … out of a sense of retribution?” he asked. “And if we are, does this help our inmates or does it make us any safer?”

The segregation unit at Waupun can house up to 180 inmates. As of early July, it had 131, more than 10 percent of the prison's overall population of about 1,250 inmates. Dickey said inmates in segregation can be hard to deal with, and working there for long periods of time is “not healthy.”

Segregation, he added, “brings out the worst in everybody. You've got a structure that starts a human dynamic between people that's destructive.”

Eugene Braaksma, a state psychologist who worked at Waupun from 2006 to 2012, agreed. “There's no way to have a power structure where one party has all of the power and the other party has none where abuses don't happen,” he said.

Braaksma never directly witnessed the abuse of inmates. But he did see “things that troubled me,” including inmate injuries that he thought were highly suspicious.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, who formerly chaired a state legislative committee that dealt with corrections, continues to get letters from inmates. She said the number of complaints of abuse from the segregation unit at Waupun “seemed to rise in 2013.”

Taylor said outsiders need to be brought in to investigate inmate complaints to avoid having “the fox run the henhouse.” Swan agreed: “To have an independent complaint process would revolutionize the system.”

Swan also called for Waupun to add mental health resources, rotate guards out of segregation every three months, and train guards better on how to deal humanely with difficult and mentally ill inmates.

NO CARROT FOR GOOD BEHAVIOR

Brian Cunningham, a Waupun correctional officer who heads the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement union, said working in segregation is an exceptionally difficult job in an increasingly difficult profession.

“We are under constant, constant stress,” said Cunningham, speaking in his capacity as a union official. “I think it's gotten way more dangerous.”

The DOC has tallied that from mid-2012 to mid-2013 there were 351 assaults, attempted assaults and assault-related injuries to state prison staff, who number 10,000. More than two-thirds of these assaults occurred in segregation.

Cunningham said the state's truth-in-sentencing law, implemented in 1999, and a 2011 bill signed by Gov. Scott Walker to end early release for some inmates made matters worse by removing one of the tools correctional officials use to maintain order.

“We took away the carrot for good behavior and we replaced it with nothing,” he said.

But while agreeing that the pressures of the job have risen, Cunningham said he's never seen any physical abuse of inmates by staff in his 20 years with the department.

'CORROBORATION IS HARD'

Kit Kerschensteiner, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit advocacy group, noted that with complaints brought by inmates, a key issue is credibility.

“Regardless of what actually happened, it always boils down to, who is going to be believed: a reputable guard or a convicted felon?” Kerschensteiner said. “Corroboration is hard.”

Of course some inmates, being criminals, often hardened and lifelong ones, tell lies. But correctional officers sometimes do, too.

“Some staff cover for one another,” said Jeff Endicott, the former warden at Columbia Correctional and Redgranite state prisons. “It's difficult to affirm a complaint or make a judgment in favor of an inmate, unless there is other corroborating evidence.”

Endicott said when he was investigating allegations against staff at Columbia for making racial comments, “There were many people who denied it happened, including witnesses to the behavior.” The experience left him “shocked.”

SMITH FACES NEW CHARGES

For his part in the events of Jan. 3, 2013, Marvin Smith was found guilty of a major offense and sentenced to an additional 330 days in segregation. He completed his sentence and was released late last year.

In an interview in March, Smith talked about pressing forward with his lawsuit, for the sake of those still at Waupun. A month later, he was arrested again, charged with taking part in a shootout with another man near a school in Milwaukee. He faces up to 30 years in prison.

After his arrest, Smith missed a deadline for responding to a defense motion in his lawsuit. The state, citing this failure, asked that the lawsuit be dismissed. In mid-June, the judge granted this request.

The lawsuit never reached a determination on Smith's allegations.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.



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