WAUPUN, Wis. (WFRV) – Monica Mencheski walked into the Tank’s Park gazebo alone with her 18-month-old dog, Rocco. As an inmate’s fiancé, she is used to that.

She is also used to being consumed with worry because her fiancé, Jose Reyes, is not in a typical prison.

“Right now, I’m not worried about the future. Right now, I’m just worried about him coming home,” she said. “He’s attempted suicide a couple of times.”

Reyes, imprisoned on an armed robbery charge in 2007, is serving his sentence at Waupun Correctional Institution. Opened in 1851, it is Wisconsin’s oldest prison and the fourth-oldest operating prison in the country.

The prison went on lockdown in March and has had modified movement ever since then, reducing inmates’ access to resources, allegedly ranging from only one shower and one hour of recreational workout each week to self-harm, attempted suicides, medical neglect, and psychological neglect.

The Department of Corrections and Gov. Tony Evers, both of which denied interview requests from Local 5 News three times over the past two months, maintain that the lockdown and modified movement conditions are the result of severe staffing shortages.

“A lack of filled correctional sergeant and correctional officer positions at Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institutions causes resource challenges to maintain safety within the institutions for members of the public, staff, and population of the facilities under normal operations,” Gov. Evers and the DOC said in a joint press release.

According to the DOC’s website, there are 155 openings out of 284 staff positions, a 54.6% vacancy rate, the highest of any prison in Wisconsin.

Lonnie Story is the attorney filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of the more than 900 inmates at Waupun and said that a staffing shortage is no excuse to give the inmates inadequate living conditions.

“It’s above and beyond what they’re supposed to be experiencing as participants in the penal system,” Story said.  “It’s being internalized, all their angst and anxiety, the stress level, they’re not sleeping because of this. They’re starting to internalize it, so now they’re creating even more of a hotbed for psychological issues.”

Since March, two inmates have died by suicide.

“The (DOC) stated there had been no uptick, no increase in self-harm, and that is a bald-faced lie,” Story said. “[Staff] did not give [an inmate] his medications, nor did they take him to psych treatment or evaluation. Instead, he attempted suicide; they put him in RHU, and on June 29, he hanged himself.”

Mencheski worries about Reyes’ mental health, especially because they go weeks at times without talking due to limited telephone access as a result of the modified movement.

“I don’t want to lose him, so for him to be having the mental thoughts of suicide because of being ignored and being locked in 24/7,” she said. “He promised me he wouldn’t. That’s probably the best part of our conversation; it’s just praying, hoping, discussing our future. It takes a toll on you. Just not being able to know what’s going on or when it’s going to be lifted. It really messes with your mental health and your ability physically and emotionally.”

Dante Cottingham and Talib Akbar are ex-inmates who speak publicly about their time in prison.

“You get to a point where you see no answers,” Cottingham said.

He served the bulk of his sentence at Green Bar Correctional Institution, Akbar at Waupun; both of them endured lockdowns and periods of modified movement but never as long as this one at Waupun.

“I think [the suicides are] a lack of intervention,” Akbar said. “Seven months is a very long time with no end in sight. No one is going to tell you when this is going to end.”

Brittany Robertson is a prison researcher who studies facilities around the country and lives in Kaukauna. She is also the founder and director of Texas Prison Reform.

“You can’t really modify a lockdown and provide adequate care. It looks like they have enough staffing for about one-third of the population,” Robertson said. “My concern is if the staffing issue isn’t corrected and it progresses, it leads to public safety issues. Escapes are caused by a lack of staffing. Contraband smuggling is caused by lack of staffing.”

Robertson believes that even amid the pay increases the governor has allotted in the biennial budget, the true solution to the problem involves the correctional officers and inmates having more respect and human connection with one another.

“The warden’s not going to be able to fix the unit, the director’s not going to be able to fix the unit, it’s bringing the incarcerated individuals and the staff together and getting ideas and suggestions from them,” she said. “There’s a prison in Georgia, when somebody was having a mental health crisis, for instance, instead of locking them in a cell or deploying gas, they would take them down to the gym and just shoot hoops with them. What would the outcome be if you looked at that person and simply validated their feelings? And told them, ‘We know you’re going through a lot, but this is what we expect, and here’s the long-term goal.’”

In addition to the pay increases, Gov. Evers and the DOC announced the goal of transitioning Waupun to single-cell housing, which involves moving 220 inmates to other facilities in the system.

For now, it is a day-by-day ordeal for Mencheski and Reyes. She does not know when she will get to talk to him on the phone sometimes; it is up to three weeks in between, but she knows what she will say to him when they do talk.

“That I love him and to be strong still. And that I’m not going anywhere. I’m still going to be here.”

The aforementioned class action lawsuit contains 16 complaints:

  • Five-month lockdown
  • One shower per week
  • One hour of rec per week
  • Stress on inmates caused by lack of sleep
  • No family visits
  • No religious services
  • Interference with attorney-client contact
  • No law library
  • Contaminated water
  • Bird defecation
  • Self-harm
  • Attempted suicides
  • Medical neglect
  • Psychological neglect
  • Dental neglect
  • Improper medications

This story involves suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling, call the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988.