Target 2 Investigates: 326 assaults on staff at four Wisconsin prisons

ALLOUEZ, Wis. (WBAY) - "You're in there with the worst of them. You've just go to make the best of it and hopefully you come out every day alive," Rick Process says.

Green Bay Correctional interior prison cells
(WBAY photo)

These are the real fears of officers working in Wisconsin's prisons.

Over the last several months we received dozens of calls and emails from corrections officers, their families and friends -- worried the people they care about won't make it out of work alive.

Prison guards are retiring early or looking for new jobs because of their safety.

Target 2 Investigates dug into this to find out why.

Nearly a dozen current and former prison guards all tell us they have serious concerns about their safety at work.

We filed open records requests to find out what goes on inside the state's prisons.

At Green Bay Correctional alone, Target 2 found more than 100 attacks or assaults on staff since July, 2015.

For many guards working there, it's simply too much.

Thousands of people drive by Green Bay Correctional Institution in Allouez every day -- most of us with no idea what's really going on inside those stone walls.

"It's right out of any prison movie you've ever seen," former corrections officer Denis O'Neill says.

"That's pretty much... What you see on TV, it's real," Process says.

Fights to riots, these two former prison guards tell Target 2 they've seen it all.

"An inmate sucker-punched a captain that I was standing next to, and the captain went down, and then it began," O'Neill recalls.

"Officers were dropping left and right," he says, adding, "We pretty much all went to the hospital that day."

"You never know what you're going to encounter. It could be anything," Process says.

Both have been injured in fights inmates started.

In September, 2015, an inmate with a long history of assaulting officers attacked a doctor, then O'Neill, leaving O'Neill with severe injuries and partial memory loss.

"I took several hits to the head, and my scalp was opened up in three places from prongs of an adapter."

That was his fourth concussion. He wanted to go back to work -- "We're proud. It was my identity" -- but doctors told him he'd had too many injuries. His 26-year career as a corrections officer was over.

Most of the nearly dozen guards Target 2 talked with tell us they also suffered multiple injuries.

"I had a broken jaw, tore three ligaments off my jaw, and a neck injury where I had to have my neck fused," Process says.

The threat of more injuries pushed Process into early retirement after 28 years in corrections.

"It just wasn't worth staying there and taking that risk of being there at that institution, because of the assaults that had been occurring and just the lack of care for staff and their well-being."

Target 2 filed open records requests and found 326 assaults on staff in the last year-and-a-half at GBCI, Oshkosh, Waupun and Dodge Correctional.

We found 100 cases of battery, including the attack on Officer O'Neill.

There were 119 throwing assaults, which include the inmate throwing boiling water on a GBCI last summer, giving him second- and third-degree burns on 30 percent of his body.

There were 82 incidents of spitting, five sexual assaults, and 51 cases of physical injury by contact.

GBCI attacks

In many cases inmates involved had more than one violation for each assault.

"I recognize a few of them. It's typically the same people time and time again," Process says.

We found 59 inmates responsible for a majority of the attacks.

So why so many?

Every guard Target 2 asked lists multiple reasons.

Some point to a 2015 law change in prisons which reduces the amount of time inmates can spend in segregation, where they are locked in a cell for 23 hours a day.

"If they can do it and increase their ranking in their gang, and only have to spend two weeks in segregation, why not create a little chaos? They have nothing to lose," O'Neill says.

Other officers tell Target 2 union support -- eliminated by Act 10 -- left officers afraid to use force and without administration backing if they did.

Also, fewer people want to work in corrections. The DOC tells Target 2 there are 16 vacancies at GBCI right now. There were 33 a year ago.

Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher acknowledges the concerns but tells Target 2 there are obvious challenges working in maximum-security prisons.

"We try to do everything we can to make them safe. The aspect is the environments, especially in the maximum institutions, are challenging, there's no doubt about that," Litscher says.

Litscher adds, "We feel that they are safe, but that doesn't mean that... Everybody has to always be vigilant."

The DOC tells us it's put several new programs in place to improve staff safety and security at GBCI in the last several months.

The agency also just provided Target 2 with a lengthy and detailed list of ways it's helping address mental health concerns for inmates. Part of that includes more immediate treatment options through funding in the governor's proposed budget.

We'll show you those -- and why the Secretary is confident they'll make a difference -- Monday on Action 2 News at 10.