3 People Died of Thirst in a Texas County Jail in Under 2 Years

All three inmates were mentally ill and became dehydrated despite ready access to water.


A woman with severe mental illness died of dehydration in a Texas jail despite having ready access to water. A local TV station found that she was one of at least three people who died that way in one county within a two-year period.

In April 2021, Georgia Baldwin called a police spokesman in Arlington, Texas, and made bizarre statements such as, "The Governor of Mississippi needs to blow you away."

According to a federal lawsuit filed against the jail by her sons last year, Baldwin was clearly in the throes of a severe mental health episode. "When a detective with the Arlington Police Department researched Ms. Baldwin, the address listed on her driver's license was to a homeless shelter," the lawsuit states. "The detective also located four Lubbock Police Department reports from 2018" in which officers found her "apparently not mentally sound and/or coherent."

Despite a detective recognizing that Baldwin was unwell, the lawsuit claims, she was arrested for making a terroristic threat to a peace officer—a felony charge—and sent to jail in Tarrant County, Texas. Six weeks later, in June, a psychiatrist determined Baldwin was "incompetent and thus unable to stand trial," the lawsuit states, and she was ordered to jail "for a competency restoration program for no more than 60 days of a 120-day commitment," after which she would serve out the rest of the time in a state hospital.

Instead, according to the lawsuit, "Tarrant County chose to continue incarcerating Ms. Baldwin in a small cell, where she could not see through a window or view other human beings," remaining there from July 27 until her death on September 14, 2021. (WFAA, the Dallas ABC affiliate, reported this week that "the wait times for a state hospital bed are anywhere from 200 days to almost a year-and-a-half.")

When Baldwin died, the medical examiner determined the cause was "severe hypernatremia"—high levels of sodium in the blood typically resulting from dehydration.

Baldwin's death is tragic and was seemingly preventable. But as WFAA reported this week, she was one of at least three inmates with severe mental illness to die of dehydration in Tarrant County's custody over a two-year period.

Authorities arrested Abdullahi Mohamed in June 2020 for allegedly threatening a relative with a knife; Mohamed was manic and bipolar, and he had spent time in a state hospital. Nine days later, jailers at the Tarrant County Jail found him unresponsive in his cell, and he died soon after. And in December 2021, Edgar Villatoro Alvarez was booked into jail on a DWI charge and other charges after having been hospitalized for a bipolar episode the previous month. After he died in February 2022, a jailer wrote in a report that he had seemed to be "deteriorating."

According to WFAA, Chief Deputy Charles Eckert testified in a deposition that "all three inmates had 24/7 access to water…so it's not a concern as long as we provide water to them." A Texas Ranger investigating Baldwin's death did find that "there is a water fountain fixed to the top of the toilet unit" in her cell, according to the lawsuit, but he also noted that he had researched hypernatremia after reading the coroner's determination and found that it "generally occur[s] when someone does not drink enough water" and "usually occurs because of impaired mental judgement."

Sure enough, a quick Google search would bring up a 1986 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association about a 17-year-old with schizophrenia who developed hypernatremia, leading researchers to determine that "psychosis can severely impair the thirst mechanism directly."

My Health My Resources of Tarrant County, a local government public health entity, provides mental health services in the county's jail facilities, but according to WFAA, "their employees testified that they rely on jailers to let them know if a prisoner isn't drinking water. Depositions also revealed that jailers aren't trained to recognize signs of dehydration and don't monitor water consumption of mentally ill prisoners."

Besides, even if Baldwin were mentally healthy enough to seek water, it still may not have been sufficient: According to a brief filed in March, the sink in Baldwin's cell appeared discolored and rusted. "Tarrant County makes much ado about a water fountain over a toilet," the brief states, but "there is no indication at this juncture that this water fountain even worked or if it did that any water pouring into the corroded sink was potable."

A metal jail cell sink with a water fountain on top; the sink bowl appears severely corroded, with discoloration throughout.
The sink and water fountain allegedly present in Georgia Baldwin's cell. (Mattix, et al. v. Tarrant County, Texas)

Unfortunately, deaths in custody are by no means a rare occurrence, especially among inmates with mental disabilities.

In 2016, guards at the Milwaukee County Jail shut off the water to Terrill Thomas's cell. Severely mentally ill, Thomas was arrested after he allegedly shot a man, and he had flooded a previous cell during his incarceration. But guards never turned the water back on, even as other inmates implored them to help, and Thomas died after six days without water. Milwaukee County paid $6.75 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Thomas's family.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into conditions at the jail in Fulton County, Georgia, after an inmate with schizophrenia housed in the jail's psychiatric ward was found dead, covered in lice and bedbugs.

Tarrant County in particular has seen numerous in-custody deaths in recent years. "There have been more than 60 deaths at the Tarrant County jail since Sheriff Bill Waybourn took office in 2017," Dallas public radio station KERA reported in March. "Conditions at the jail are a constant topic of conversation at county meetings, and jail lawsuit settlements have cost Tarrant at least $1.6 million—with more cases pending."

Just this week, Waybourn appeared before Tarrant County commissioners after another inmate died in April when guards pinned him down and pepper-sprayed him.

Baldwin's lawsuit lists over two dozen incidents of alleged abuse or neglect in county jails since 2010 and says, "Tarrant County jail suffering and deaths show a custom and pattern of indifference."