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