Prosecutors on Monday laid out details of the desperate final week of life for Terrill Thomas, an inmate at a Milwaukee County jail, who last April died of dehydration in solitary confinement a week after prison officials turned off the water to his cell. Country prosecutors are now looking into whether the prison guards committed a crime in the death of the 38-year-old Thomas; the preliminary hearing into the guards’ conduct began Monday.
“Through an opening statement and testimony from several witnesses, prosecutors laid out how the confluence of the violation of a sheriff’s office policy, an unusual jail practice, Thomas’ mental illness and inattentiveness by corrections officers led to Thomas’ death,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. “Thomas was in jail following an arrest on charges that he shot a man, drove to the Potawatomi casino and fired two rounds inside the building. Family members said he was in the throes of a mental breakdown.”
From the Journal Sentinel:
Terrill Thomas spent seven straight days holed up in a solitary confinement cell with no running water, slowly withering away… Thomas started the weeklong stretch at the Milwaukee County Jail belligerent and loud, the result of an untreated mental illness, prosecutors said. But as the days wore on, he grew weak and dehydrated. He lost nearly 35 pounds and turned quiet, never asking for or receiving medical attention. Barely two hours into his eighth day in solitary, jail staff found Thomas, 38, dead on his jail cell floor, the result of profound dehydration…
… In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley said surveillance videos show three corrections officers cut off the water in Thomas’ cell—a disciplinary measure after Thomas flooded another cell—and never turned it back on. The same officers never documented the water cutoff or notified supervisors, leaving fellow corrections officers in the dark… In theory, Thomas could have caused a commotion over his lack of water. But Benkley said the evidence will show Thomas’ bipolar disorder—which the jail’s staff knew about— made it apparent he “was unable to tell people about his basic needs.”
There were at least 20 guards on the solitary confinement wing over the course of the week Thomas was held there; it’s unclear how many knew Thomas’ water had been shut off and to what extent they knew of his mental illness. The administration of the jail falls under the purview of Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a high-profile supporter of Donald Trump’s campaign, whose cowboy hat and tough-on-crime bravado made him popular ally for Trump’s “American carnage” claims and elevated the sheriff to such an extent that he was under consideration, at one point, to lead the Department of Homeland Security.