WASHINGTON ― A mentally ill man who last year died of severe dehydration in a jail run by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke was kept in his cell for seven days straight after jail employees cut off his water supply, a prosecutor in Wisconsin said Monday.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that prosecutors told a six-person jury on Monday that cutting off water to Terrill Thomas’ cell was “highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail.” The comments came as part of an inquest into Thomas’ death, in which the jury decides whether there’s probable cause to charge anyone with a crime in Thomas’ death.
Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley told jurors that it “became apparent” that Thomas “was unable to tell people about his basic needs,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The jury is considering whether there is probable cause to charge any jail officials with abuse of a prisoner.
In a court filing last month, the district attorney argued that abusing, neglecting, or ill-treating a prisoner is a public welfare offense.
“Inmates are at the mercy of their jailors for basic life-sustaining necessities like water, food, and medical care,” the district attorney wrote in a court filing. “When a mentally ill inmate, like Mr. Thomas, is locked in solitary confinement without access to water, his life is totally in his jailors’ hands. The law much strictly require jailors to safeguard lives which are so completely entrusted to their care. Stupidity, thoughtlessness, indifference, and incompetence are not morally sufficient excuses nor valid legal defenses.”
Thomas’ death was included in The Huffington Post’s investigative project examining jail deaths across the United States in the year after the high-profile death of Sandra Bland in police custody in 2015.
Clarke, a high-profile supporter of President Donald Trump who makes frequent appearances on conservative news outlets, appears to take a hands-off approach to managing the jail he’s charged with running and has deflected blame for the deaths that occurred on his watch. The Justice Department had been considering launching a civil rights investigation into the conditions at the Milwaukee County Jail, but the status of that potential investigation is unclear.
Erik J. Heipt, an attorney for Thomas’ family, noted that Monday was the one-year anniversary of his “senseless” death.
“He was a pretrial detainee in a mental health crisis. Instead of providing him with desperately needed treatment, the Milwaukee County Jail disciplined Terrill by locking him in an isolation cell, giving him inedible ‘nutraloaf’ to eat, and shutting off his drinking water supply for seven days—causing him to suffer and die from profound dehydration. Nothing like this should ever happen in an American jail,” he said.
“I am pleased that the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office taking this atrocity seriously and hope that the inquest is the first step toward justice for Terrill and his family,” he added.