Roelke Goes To Prison

When writing Tradition of Deceit, I needed to include a set scene at a prison. Waupun Correctional Institution was the logical choice. The prison is one of the oldest in the country. It is listed on the Wisconsin register of historic places, and in 1992 was added to the National Register of Historic Places as the “Wisconsin State Prison Historic District.”


This maximum security prison was established in 1851, just three years after Wisconsin achieved statehood. A temporary structure housed inmates until the first permanent building was completed in 1854. Prison workers helped build that stone structure. It held both men and women until 1933, when a separate women’s facility was constructed.


Many additions have been made over the years, adding separate structures to the 22-acre facility. In 1940 the original building was remodeled, but the exterior walls remain, and the structure is still in use.


One of the old turret-style guard towers is visible through the fence.

I had the opportunity to tour the prison and hear from the wardens and several staff members before Tradition of Deceit was published. (One poignant detail of my visit—Waupun is only about 20 miles from the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Refuge, and each time we walked outside I saw and heard geese flying overhead.)

Visiting a maximum security prison is inherently sad and grim, but I was also very impressed with the work the prison staff is doing to assist the different populations incarcerated there.

So…what would Roelke’s experience at Waupun been like? Then as now, he saw the prison surrounded by a beautiful neighborhood with many gorgeous old homes.

Waupun home & prison


Waupun home

No one I spoke with had worked in the prison in 1983, but some changes are obvious. One of the warden’s main goals is reducing idleness among the prisoners. New programs mean the men are much more likely to engage in work, hobbies, or educational activities. In 1983, more men would have been staring at the walls.

Roelke’s visit also happened to come in a tumultuous period at Waupun and other Wisconsin prisons. One of the critical factors was severe over-crowding; in 1983, the prison intended to hold 810 prisoners held over 1,200. Tiny cells intended to house one man held four.

Inmates and guards felt tension rising, and some in both groups felt that threats against their safety were not being addressed. In January, 1983, prisoners at Waupun rioted, and managed to take 15 hostages.

Waupun - Version 2

AP/Milwaukee Sentinel photo taken during the stand-off.

After 10 tense hours, 200 officers managed to resume control of the buildings where the inmates involved with barricaded.



AP/Milwaukee Sentinel photo.


Milwaukee Sentinel Photo by Sherman Gessert.

I briefly considered incorporating that story into Tradition of Deceit, which is set in February, 1983. In the end it went into the “interesting but not relevant” pile.

Instead, I focused primarily on the area where inmates received visitors. Visitation has actually declined since 1983, due to rising gas prices and declining phone service prices. The visitation room of 1983 no longer exists, in part because pillars blocked guards’ visibility. My description is an amalgam of what I saw in 2014 and what I heard about the former setting. (Photography is not permitted inside the prison, so I can’t show it.)


Waupun Correctional Institution holds a unique position in Wisconsin’s prison system, and is a reminder that historic places come in all varieties.

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9 Responses to “Roelke Goes To Prison”

  1. Betty Munguia Says:

    I Love History and I learn so much from you while researching for your books and I am almost 61 years old and like the saying goes you learn something new everyday no matter how old you are, I Love the Chloe books and all the History behind them Thank-You for all the hard work and love you put into these books !!!

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    Betty, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the books. When I began conceptualizing the series, I just knew there were kindred souls out there who love reading and history as much as I do!

  3. w0rdtrix Says:

    I was in school at time of the 1983 riot, and vaguely remember hearing about it. I knew it predated the Civil War as Hans Christian Heg (whose statue is on the King St corner of the Capitol Square) was warden there, but did not know it was an historic landmark.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I learned about the prison from the other direction–my first glimpse came via Hans Heg, because my husband and I are both interested in Norwegian settlement and stories. Only later did I discover that so much of the original fabric of that early prison is still intact. I was in Wisconsin in 1983 but had no recollection of the riot.

  4. Betty Bauer Says:

    To Kathleen, always the researcher for her novels: What a great thing you did to visit Waupun and share its history and preservation with your fans! I love the building structure and the grounds and think it’s got to play a part in what well-being the occupants of it have. Thank Wisconsin for choosing to keep such a place for those who inhabit it.
    Always amazed at your long line of published works, Betty Bauer

  5. Jill Says:

    I was there January 1983. The day of the riot was my first day of on the job training. Went on to finish a 28 year career.

  6. Bethel Justmann Says:

    I’m just on page 126 where it mentions that Mr. Lobo just got out of Waupun. I immediately thought of the prison riot in 1983. While I did grow up on the east side of the Horicon Marsh, I had already moved away by 1983 so I don’t remember the event. However, at this moment I’m sitting at my desk in the Admin building at Green Bay Correctional in Allouez WI. I’ve been told by “old-timers” that GBCI did send some armed correctional officers down to assist at the time. Love your books!!!! Thanks, Beth

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