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Federal Lawsuit Filed in Dehydration Death at Wisconsin Jail; Three Jailers Charged

by Derek Gilna

A federal civil rights suit was filed in federal court in Wisconsin on August 14, 2017, after a prisoner died at the Milwaukee County Jail (MCJ) – reportedly after being deprived of water for a week. The family of Terrill J. Thomas instituted the action approximately four months after an inquest jury issued a finding of probable cause to prosecute seven jail employees in connection with Thomas’ death. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.52].

In May 2017, District Attorney John Chisholm received the recommendation from the inquest jury, which was itself unusual. Inquests are usually performed by coroners to determine a cause of death, whereas a district attorney considering criminal charges normally convenes a grand jury after a coroner has made such a finding.

The inquest jury recommended charges against seven jailers, all employees of then-Sheriff David A. Clarke. They included Major Nancy Lee Evans, Lt. Kashka Meadors and jail guards James Lee Ramsey-Guy, Thomas Laine, John Weber, Dominique Smith and JorDon Johnson.

Sheriff’s deputies had arrested Thomas in April 2017 after he allegedly confessed to firing three gunshots – two in the Potawatomi Casino and one that hit a man in the chest. Thomas, 38, suffered from bipolar disorder.

As stated in the civil rights complaint, Thomas arrived at MCJ “suffering from an acute mental health crisis and ... in urgent need of medical attention. Instead of providing him with such care, jail officials knowingly allowed him to decompensate” – that is, to allow his condition to deteriorate – and “punished him by locking him in a small isolation cell and deliberately cutting off his only source of drinking water.”

“For seven straight days,” the lawsuit continued, “from April 17, 2016 until his death on April 24, 2016, Mr. Thomas remained locked alone in his cell, 24 hours a day, as he literally died of thirst.”

At the inquest into Thomas’ death, Ramsey-Guy, Meadors and Weber each placed blame on the other for failing to properly log the shutoff of water to Thomas’ cell, without which they said they had no way of knowing he was without access to water.

But as the lawsuit also noted, “By April 23 [Thomas] was too weak to yell or bang on his window. He was simply lying naked on his cell floor, barely able to move, severely dehydrated, literally dying of thirst ... the change in Mr. Thomas’ condition was obvious to every jail employee who looked into his cell, including multiple defendants. However, not a single one bothered to call for help until it was too late to save Mr. Thomas’ life.”

A Milwaukee police detective who investigated the case “observed that Mr. Thomas’ cell contained no mattress or other bedding, that his toilet bowl was bone dry, and that no water came out of the sink faucet. He was informed that Mr. Thomas’ water had been shut off,” the complaint continued. An autopsy found that Thomas lost 37 pounds during his incarceration, or more than 10 percent of his body weight.

The attorney for Thomas’ estate who filed the civil rights complaint, Hank Balson, said he expected criminal charges to be filed by the District Attorney’s Office.

For his part, Chisholm said he would give significant weight to the inquest verdict, adding that keeping detainees safe at MCJ is “not a high standard.”

Before the inquest jury released its findings, Sheriff Clarke had publicly groused about media reports that he claimed failed to highlight Thomas’ ill health or the charges that led to his arrest. Clarke resigned as sheriff in August 2017; he has since joined America First Action, a pro-Trump PAC.

Named as defendants in the civil rights lawsuit are Milwaukee County, Sheriff Clarke and Armor Correctional Health Services (MCJ’s private medical care contractor), as well as supervisors, guards and other staff employed at the jail who were accused of failing to follow jail policies in their treatment of Thomas. The case remains pending. See: Estate of Thomas v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:17-cv-01128-PP.

On February 12, 2018, the Milwaukee District Attorney’s Office announced criminal charges had been filed against three jail employees, stating, “We made the determination that these three individuals were responsible for the actions surrounding Mr. Thomas’ death.” Chisholm added that he was still reviewing issues related to the medical care Thomas received from Armor Correctional Health Services.

Major Evans, 48, was charged with felony misconduct and misdemeanor obstructing an officer. Prosecutors said she failed to preserve surveillance video showing the water to Thomas’ cell being turned off and lied to police about the video footage. If convicted of both charges, she could face more than four years in prison.

Lt. Meadors, 40, and Ramsey-Guy, 38, were both charged with neglect of a resident of a penal facility. Prosecutors accused Meadors of ordering Ramsey-Guy to shut off the water. They face up to 3½ years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

All three jailers were suspended with pay and remain free on signature bonds.

Apparently, Thomas’ case wasn’t the only time an MCJ prisoner was punished by being denied water. According to jail log books, two other incidents in which prisoners had water to their cells turned off due to bad behavior occurred within a month of Thomas’ death. 

Sources: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, New York Post, www.washingtonpost.com, www.jsonline.com, www.chicagotribune.com, www.abcnews.go.com

 

Related legal case

Estate of Thomas v. Clarke


 

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