Milwaukee prosecutors opened an inquest this week into the death of an inmate in the Milwaukee County Jail last year after surveillance video showed three officers had turned off the water in the inmate’s cell and never turned it back on.
Terrill Thomas, 38, died of “profound dehydration” after being alone in his cell for seven days without water.
Jail staffers shut off the water supply to Thomas’s solitary cell shortly after he was transferred there because he had stuffed his mattress in a toilet to flood the previous one, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley said.
“This order to shut off Mr. Thomas’ water was highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail,” Benkley said.
A current and a former jail captain testified Tuesday about the video. Captain George Gold said that his commander, Nancy Lee Evans, directed him to review the video the day after Thomas’s death and report to her what he saw. But Evans denied that she was told about the water being shut off when she testified later.
An inquest allows prosecutors to question witness under oath before a jury. The jury will later decide unanimously whether and what legal charges should be filed. But the final decision will be up to the district attorney’s office.
This inquest into Thomas’s death is expected to last five days. Prosecutors are not required to follow the jury’s verdict. They have not said whom they might consider charging.
Thomas was arrested on April 15, 2016, on charges of shooting a man in the chest and firing another two shots inside a casino, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His family says he was having a mental breakdown at that time.
Because of an untreated mental illness, Thomas started his stay in the jail loud and belligerent. But he became weak and quite as days went by. Thomas lost nearly 35 pounds and never asked for or received medical attention, the Sentinel reported.
“I could tell he was getting weaker,” fellow inmate Marcus Berry who was in a cell across from Thomas told the Sentinel in July 2016. “One day he just lay down, dehydrated and hungry.”
The Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force released a statement on Monday saying it hopes the full circumstances of Thomas’s death will be clarified through the inquest process. “But there is strong reason to believe that oversight failures, inadequate training and supervision within the Sheriff’s department played a significant role in these deaths,” the statement said.
In the United States, 1.5 million inmates were held in state and federal prisons in 2015, according to the latest data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It was the lowest since 2005, but still the largest in the world.