Wis. warden resigns, 7 staff members fired after probe of prison escape

There were also four staff members who resigned during the course of the investigations


By Shanzeh Ahmad
The Wisconsin State Journal

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Wis. — The warden of the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage resigned in June during an investigation by the state Department of Corrections that led to the firing of several staff members after two inmates escaped in April, the DOC said Thursday.

The DOC’s Office of Internal Affairs completed 13 personnel investigations as part of the ongoing process of investigating the escape of the inmates on April 16, DOC spokesman John Beard said.

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the results of the personnel investigations and the review
DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the results of the personnel investigations and the review "reflect a combination of performance failures and long-standing, systemic issues" relating to security procedures at the prison. (Photo/TNS)

James Robert Newman, 37, and Thomas E. Deering, 46, escaped by climbing over two security fences but were caught the next day after visiting a homeless shelter in Illinois. Holly Zimdahl, a kitchen worker at the prison, was charged in April with helping the inmates escape, the Associated Press reported.

The personnel investigations resulted in seven staff members being fired and one being suspended for five days, Beard said. They were informed Thursday. There were also four staff members who resigned during the course of the investigations, and one staff member was cleared.

Beard told the Associated Press the four staff members who resigned were:

  • Zimdahl, who quit on May 27.
  • Warden Susan Novak, who resigned June 29.
  • Taylar Birkett, a guard who resigned May 7.
  • Kevin Boodry, a guard supervisor who resigned on July 2.

Beard declined to name any other employees who were disciplined. He said Deputy Warden Lucas Weber and Security Director Brian Gustke ended their jobs with the department on Thursday but wouldn’t say if they were among the employees terminated, according to the AP.

Beard said six of the eight staff members have the right to appeal the disciplinary decisions through the state’s grievance process and the state Employment Relations Commission, while two others who were fired were still in their probationary period and are not eligible to appeal.

The Office of Internal Affairs, which was reinstated by the DOC in December, has conducted 90 interviews since the April escape. The DOC’s Division of Adult Institutions also conducted a review of the prison’s safety and security.

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the results of the personnel investigations and the review “reflect a combination of performance failures and long-standing, systemic issues” relating to security procedures at the prison.

The DOC will not release details of the issues identified related to safety and security, Beard said, but the agency is “taking steps to correct the issues at the Columbia Correctional Institution and applying lessons learned” to its other facilities.

“These are tough decisions that bring pleasure to no one in our agency, but I cannot tolerate job performance that compromises public safety,” Carr said. “We take that responsibility very seriously.”

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©2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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