More than a year after inmate Terrill Thomas died of dehydration in a Milwaukee jail cell, the county’s district attorney, Kurt Benkley, stated at an inquest on Monday that his death was the result of jail staff shutting off his access to water for a full week.
Benkley’s statement is the first time a public official has echoed allegations made by other jail inmates following Thomas’ death, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted.
Monday’s inquest, made before a six person jury, is the start of the county prosecutor’s process to determine whether criminal charges should be brought in Thomas’ death. The prosecutor’s office has not yet said who would be indicted should criminal charges be filed.
Thomas, 38, had been diagnosed as bipolar. He was arrested on April 15 of last year after allegedly firing a weapon in Milwaukee’s Potowatomi Casino. According to his family, Thomas had become enraged following the theft of his car. At the time, the Journal Sentinel reported that he was awaiting a psychiatric evaluation while in jail.
According to the Journal Sentinel, Thomas had initially been in the Milwaukee County Jail’s psychiatric wing, after having refused to take his medication. There, he used a torn-up mattress to flood the room. He was then moved to a solitary confinement cell, where a jail staff member manually turned off his cell’s water—a move both highly unusual, and one left unmentioned in the jail’s reporting logs, Benkley told the court. This apparently lasted for a week.
As the week went on, Benkley claimed, Thomas’ deteriorating mental condition left him unable to effectively communicate his needs to the jail staff. On April 24, Thomas died of dehydration.
“I could tell he was getting weaker,” fellow inmate Marcus Berry told the Journal Sentinel in July 2016. “One day he just lay down, dehydrated and hungry.”
The Milwaukee County Jail, overseen by Sheriff David Clarke, has been host to a number of suspicious deaths over the past several years, including that of a newborn baby. That child’s mother, Shadé Swayzer, has accused jail officials of ignoring her calls for help after going into labor while reportedly housed in the facility’s “special needs” section.
According to the Journal Sentinel, the inquest into Thomas’ death is expected to last five days.