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.