Wisconsin prison chief retires amid guard shortage; departure another personnel headache for Evers

Posted at 4:31 PM, Mar 01, 2024

MADISON (AP) — Wisconsin's prisons secretary will retire next week as his embattled agency continues to struggle with overcrowded institutions, a glaring shortage of guards and allegations of inhumane conditions.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Friday that Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr will step down on March 8. Evers appointed him to the position in 2018.

"The past five years have been quite memorable, and I could not be prouder to have worked with some of the finest public servants in the country who are doing amazing work every day under very difficult conditions," Carr said in a statement released by the governor's office.

Carr struggled through his tenure with overcrowded prisons. As of Friday, the adult prison system housed 22,275 people, about 4,700 prisoners over capacity. Problems have been exacerbated by a lack of guards; as of Friday, the guard vacancy rate across the prison system stood at 26.3%.

The shortage of guards grew so severe last year that prisons in Green Bay, Waupun and Stanley instituted lockdowns.

Three inmates died at Waupun in 2023. Dean Hoffmann killed himself in solitary confinement in June. Department of Corrections spokesperson Beth Hardtke said Friday that the Dodge County Sheriff's Office was leading an investigation into the other two inmates' deaths. Sheriff Dale Schmidt said the investigation is still active and declined to comment further.

A group of Waupun inmates filed a federal class-action lawsuit in October saying lockdown conditions there amount to cruel and unusual punishment. And last month Hoffmann's daughter filed a federal lawsuit alleging Waupun officials failed to provide her father with adequate mental health care and medications.

The two-year state budget that Evers signed last summer provided 6% raises for prison guards and boosted their starting pay in hopes of generating interest in the profession. The move appears to have worked — the class of guards that graduated from training last month numbered at 214 people, the largest class since 1981.

Stanley has resumed normal operations in late November, but movement restrictions remain in place in Green Bay and Waupun, Hardtke said Friday.

Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, chairperson of the Senate's judiciary and public safety committee, said in a statement that he thought Carr did the best he could in a tough position.

"Being Secretary of the Department of Corrections can be a thankless and burdensome job," Wanggaard said. "Navigating the conflicting interests between the Governor's office, state and federal courts, convicted felons, guards, victim and inmate advocates, wardens and, yes, the Legislature, can be overwhelming."

Carr's retirement marks another personnel headache for Evers as he works to find people willing to serve in Madison's toxic political environment. Republicans who control the state Senate have effectively fired 13 Evers appointees by refusing to confirm them.

State Department of Natural Resources Secretary Adam Payne quit in October after just 10 months on the job, saying he wanted to spend more time with his aging parents and his grandchildren. The agency took heavy criticism over its wolf management plans and anemic deer hunting seasons during Payne's tenure. Evers has yet to find a replacement.

The governor said in the statement from his office that he would name Carr's replacement "in the coming weeks."