Waupun weighs a future without 167-year-old prison

May 6, 2021

The U.S. prison population suffered higher rates of infection, higher than most other institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic and for those living at Waupun Correctional Institute (WCI), the state’s oldest continuously operating prison, and for those who care for them, the pandemic further complicated the debate over WCI’s future.

Men incarcerated at the prison shared concerns with the press recently. That is until they were put into quarantine in December 2020. Between early August and October 1, 2020, the prison reported 228 positive COVID-19 cases. By November 13, the number of positive cases had reached 700. The prison as currently configured is designed to accommodate 882. Some 954 are currently incarcerated at the prison which was originally constructed in 1854.

State Assembly legislators at a corrections committee hearing in February 2021 were divided during debate over a proposal to close WCI. Citing the City of Waupun’s own priorities on economic development, which emphasize agriculture and do not mention the prison, Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) expressed hope that the legislature could work in a bipartisan manner to help prepare Waupun for an economic future without the WCI, but as reported by Isiah Holmes in the Wisconsin Examiner, Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) said the prison was an essential part of the founding identity of Waupun.

Julie Nickel, the mayor of Waupun has adopted a middle approach to WCI. In an interview with the Examiner, Nickel said the city should be less dependent on the prison, although she believes it should also remain open.

“The city also wants to keep the prison open as a lot of the employees live within and around the city,” she said. “Our businesses also appreciate the money that visitors bring to the city.”

Local residents, and not just in Waupun, are concerned about the local economic impact if WCI were to continue downsizing, but Rep. Bowen told the Examiner he remains hopeful of a breakthrough leading to the closure of WCI.

“I think there are a number of rural communities that are trying to focus on a 21st century economy that is shifting from where it used to be,” he said again stressing the importance of agriculture to the area around Waupun. “The demands are continuing to increase, and it creates opportunities for communities like Waupun to let go of the things that they were just used to. They were used to a facility employing 200 people as a prison.”