Police Abuse

A Man Died in Jail After Getting No Water for a Week. Will Anybody Be Held Accountable?

Prosecutors in Milwaukee County ask a jury to consider whether to charge anybody.


Terrell Thomas
Family photo

That a man slowly dehydrated in a Milwaukee County Jail, denied access to water for seven days, until he ultimately died, is horrifying enough. The possibility that no corrections officer could be held accountable for his extremely avoidable death is repulsive.

Terrell Thomas, 38, died a year ago after being found unresponsive in his jail cell. His death was ruled a homicide, a result of extreme dehydration. The water had been shut off to Thomas' cell because he had been "acting erratically" and flooding the previous cell he had been placed in, according to officials. So he had no access to water in his jail cell, and under jail procedure, his own sink was supposed to be his source of drinking water when he was fed.

Thomas was in jail charged with shooting a man, then driving to a casino and shooting a gun there as well. His family said he was bipolar and in the midst of a mental breakdown. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was awaiting a psychiatric examination at the time of his death.

A year later after much media attention (apparently investigators of Thomas' death didn't even interview the prisoners in the cells surrounding him until after the Journal Sentinel talked to them), prosecutors have started a public inquest and are asking a jury to consider whether they should file charges against anybody. This isn't the same as a grand jury. The decision is advisory, and prosecutors will still be making the decision whether to file.

The Journal Sentinel's reporting will not exactly fill you with confidence that anybody will be brought to justice over Thomas' death. Thanks to the nature of unaccountable government bureaucracies, it's going to be tough to prove that anybody was technically responsible for what happened to him:

In prior court filings, prosecutors said the "potential crime" relevant to the inquest is abuse of a prisoner, a low-level felony charge. To prove that charge, prosecutors would have to show jail staff neglected Thomas or knowingly allowed the neglect to occur.

It's expected that most corrections officers will testify they were not aware that Thomas' water was cut off. Decorie Smith, an officer who worked three overnight shifts on Thomas' wing during his incarceration, testified Monday he was never informed Thomas' water was off and Thomas never asked for water.

"If someone requests, 'Can I get my water turned on?' and I find out their water is off, I turn it on," Smith testified. Both Smith and his lieutenant, Jeffrey Andrykowski, said sheriff's office policy does not allow for indefinitely shutting off an inmate's water.

Other inmates told the Journal Sentinel that not only did they hear Thomas beg for water, they also told corrections officers about the situation.

Perhaps it was all a cascade of horrible communication failures that was not tied to deliberate neglect, and perhaps criminal prosecutions are not the appropriate response. In the private sector, there would likely be civil suits from the family (which will most likely here as well). In addition employees that had performed so poorly at their jobs that it led to a man's death, even if it wasn't intentional, would probably get fired. And this would be a separate issue from whether they faced criminal charges.

That's an extremely frustrating problem when dealing with public sector employees of all kinds but particularly those who work in law enforcement and prisons. It is very hard to terminate them absent criminal convictions, even when they are irresponsible enough to cause a man's death. We saw it with Eric Garner, killed by a New York police officer as the direct result of a chokehold. Police officers who have clearly engaged in reckless conduct that have caused harm to others fight (often successfully) to keep their jobs in the absence of a criminal conviction. And even when these people get fired for bad or negligent behavior, they simply are able to find new jobs in law enforcement just by moving to another state.

But that's just assuming anybody will be found accountable for anything at all. Take note of an equally horrifying prison death from South Florida. Prisoner Darren Rainey was essentially boiled alive when locked in a scalding hot shower by guards for two hours. There, the state's attorney determined there was no criminal conduct by the guards. At least in Milwaukee, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley is asking a jury to weigh in.

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  1. And even when these people get fired for bad or negligent behavior, they simply are able to find new jobs in law enforcement just by moving to another state.

    Or get reinstated after arbitration. If you think the Union is going to let go of one fucking dues-paying member, you’ve got another thing coming.

  2. Sounds similar to the case of Jamycheal Mitchell:

    Arrested for stealing $5.05 of sweets and soda, a 24-year-old who doctors repeatedly diagnosed as psychotic and delusional was left to essentially starve to death over four months in a squalid Virginia jail cell, Jamycheal Mitchell’s aunt alleged in a federal lawsuit.

    By the time Mitchell died in August — officially, of a heart condition “accompanying wasting syndrome of unknown etiology” — jail staff had allegedly denied him many meals, cut off the water to his cell and left him naked with no bedding or shoes as he smeared feces on the window of his urine-covered cell, the lawsuit states, citing numerous inmates who served time with Mitchell.

    Mitchell lost about 40 pounds during his time in jail, documents say. A medical examiner said he was “nearly cachectic,” meaning his weight loss could not be reversed via nutrition.

    1. A window?!? What luxury!

  3. Are we sure he didn’t “make a furtive movement toward his waistband” which would surely justify turning off his water supply?

  4. This is a direct result of “broken windows” policing. It gives cops an excuse for locking up those who are usually doing nothing more than hanging out at the wrong place at the wrong time and acting erratically because they are often mentally ill. Once in jail, they tend to act out more because of this, and so end up being tortured to death (er-I mean “disciplined”)…

  5. flooding the previous cell he had been placed in

    I’m sure they had to replace the carpeting, the padding, the subflooring out… probably tear the bottom two feet of drywall and insulation out too.

    I mean, Christ, they were hosing Stalone off in the remote Pacific Northwest 35 yrs. ago. Haven’t we mastered the whole concrete floors with a floor drain and limited but available water/food problem yet?

  6. The fault lies in for-profit prisons!


  7. A Man Died in Jail After Getting No Water for a Week. Will Anybody Be Held Accountable?

    Oh, I think we all know the answer to that question.

    1. Thugs gotta thug.

  8. How is this not a crime against humanity again?

    Seems pretty straightforward to me. Deny water/deny life.

    It’s a crime.

    1. That’s what I don’t get. POW camps wouldn’t be allowed to be run like this without heads rolling.

      Quite bluntly, the person in charge of prisons in that state period is ultimately responsible. If he/she is running a department so badly that this is doable without punishment, then they should be punished.

      You want the big pay and the nice title? Well, you get all of the responsibility as well.

      1. Professional responsibility?

        How quaint.

      2. the person in charge of prisons in that state period is ultimately responsible


        If the worker bees want to dick around and cover their asses, go up to the next level. Or is that too real-world?

      3. “That’s what I don’t get. POW camps wouldn’t be allowed to be run like this without heads rolling.”

        You’d think. But, true story: After Gettysburg in 1863, a Union Major in charge of medical supplies in Phila. denied a doctor a long list of medicines and supplies needed by a P.O.W, camp (holding Union soldiers, no less!) because the doctor hadn’t written his supply requisition on both sides of the paper. For two weeks, the doctor had to buy supplies out of his own pocket or get donations from the local pharmacies until the Major finally relented. What did the Army do? They promoted the Major to Lt. Colonel.

        1. but that was 150 years ago. what about now?

  9. Christ, what a horror show.

    Where is the BLM movement on this? This seems like a good case to publicize.

  10. I used to work at a state mental hospital in WI, and the transfers we got from Milwaukee County Jail always had horror stories to tell. It was like they were purposely trying to make the inmates/patients more mentally unstable, and they usually succeeded.

  11. This is worse than murder! Please, someone should hang.

  12. How can they not prove someone was responsible? Someone had to turn a knob, isn’t that how plumbing works?

  13. Can you explain more about this jury? What exactly is it called, and what are the rules it operates by?

  14. Left out of the news paper article is the fact that per procedure if they turn off the water in the cell they provide bottled water. Which he refused to drink according to another source.

    Could Reason investigate if that is accurate?

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