A jury is recommending seven Milwaukee County jail employees should face charges for the horrific dehydration death of an imprisoned man denied water for a week in 2016.
Terrell Thomas, 38, was imprisoned in a solitary cell with his water deliberately shut off by jail officials, who claimed they had done so because he had attempted to flood a previous cell. But this left him with no water to drink for seven days. His death was ruled a homicide by medical examiners.
Prosecutors in Milwaukee County took the unusual step of putting together an "inquest jury" to see if they felt there was probable cause to charge any jail employees with crimes for Thomas' death. A decision by an inquest jury does not bind prosecutors to any sort of action. It's simply an advisory.
After hearing testimony for a week, jurors decided that there was probable cause to charge seven corrections officers at the jail with felonies for abuse, neglect, or ill-treatment of prisoners. It will be up to District Attorney John Chisholm to decide whether to charge them or not. He can decide to charge just some of them. He can also decide to charge others beyond these seven.
Jail officials had been attempting to portray Thomas' death as a communication issue, with several people testifying that they had no idea that Thomas' water had been shut off in his cell. But on Monday jurors were told that jail officials had subsequently turned water off to other prisoners' cells as a form of punishment. This happened after Thomas died of dehydration. What happened to Thomas might not have been an isolated incident. From The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
Earlier Monday the jury heard that in the weeks after Thomas died jail officials ordered the water shut off for two other inmates in the disciplinary pod of the Milwaukee County Jail.
Those two inmates were punished for covering their cell windows, jail logs show.
A prosecutor called the practice "torture," which was doubly shocking because it followed the death of Thomas.
In addition, jail policy allows water to be turned off only when a prisoner has flooded a cell, not as punishment for misconduct. This additional information certainly challenges the claim that Thomas' death was the result of poor communication with no malicious intent.
In the meantime, in related news, a captain with the county's corrections department abruptly resigned over the weekend. He was not one of the seven people targeted in the inquest considered by the jury. He testified in the inquest, though, that he saw Thomas' water get turned off and told his commander. He says he received "no directive" from her. She disputed the captain's claims and said he was trying to make her the "bad guy." The commander, Maj. Nancy Evans, is one of the seven people named by the jury as potentially criminally responsible for Thomas' death.
And over the weekend, another inmate in the Milwaukee County corrections system died. This was not in the county jail, but the county-run House of Corrections. That death is still being investigated and few details have been released.