Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

New Details Emerge on Senseless Death in a Milwaukee, Wisconsin Jail

While many of these deaths have much in common, each is also unique both in that the victim was a person whose family and friends will mourn and also because each case tends to emphasize particular flaws in the dysfunctional American criminal justice system. The 2016 death of Terrill Thomas in a Milwaukee jail, for example, highlights the lack of adequate care for mentally ill prisoners, the dangers of outsourcing institutional health care services to private companies, the impunity with which jails disregard court orders and constitutional standards, and the culture of neglect and casual violence among guards and other staff. New details about the case were reported by Al Jazeera on July 9, 2020.

Terrill Thomas already had a history of mental illness and trouble with the law when he was arrested in April 2016 on charges of armed robbery and felony possession of a firearm, but the years before this last arrest had been promising because, according to his family, the 38-year-old Thomas had started his own business and turned his life around. Business setbacks, however, triggered a mental health episode, and even though Thomas’ mother asked police to step in before her son hurt himself or someone else, nothing was done until it was too late. (See PLN, March 2018, p. 59.)

When he arrived at the Milwaukee County Jail, Thomas was placed in an area designated for prisoners with mental health issues. After flooding his cell by clogging the toilet, he was moved to a disciplinary unit and his water shut off. Over the next few days, Thomas rambled incoherently, beat on his door, and paced endlessly in his cell. His water was never turned back on, and other prisoners on the same unit later told investigators that guards refused to bring him water.

Thomas was found dead in his cell early on the morning of April 24. The county medical examiner would eventually determine the cause of death was dehydration and rule it a homicide.

The senseless death of this obviously troubled man shed a very unflattering light on the treatment of mentally ill prisoners at the Milwaukee jail. Several guards and one psychiatric social worker noted that Thomas’ behavior warranted attention by medical staff, but he was only scheduled for an appointment at some unspecified future date. Four days before his death, Thomas’ attorney requested a mental health evaluation, but despite this, and despite the fact that records indicate nurses checked Thomas’ blood pressure and blood sugar daily, he was allowed to die.

The Milwaukee County Jail is not alone in its lack of adequate care for the mentally ill, nor is it alone in contracting health care services to a private firm. This firm, Armor Correctional Health Services, promises more efficient and cost-effective care, but the Florida company faces multiple lawsuits across the eight states in which it operates. A mentally ill prisoner died of starvation while under Armor’s care in Florida, and four more deaths in New York in 2016 led to an investigation revealing systemic problems and the firm being barred from bidding on contracts in that state.

The firm was chosen by then-Sheriff David Clark to take over the health services in Milwaukee County because it promised lower costs, and despite the warnings of health care professionals and county officials, the contract went through. Three years later, Terrill Thomas would die while in Armor’s care.

The problems in Milwaukee County Jail cannot all be laid at the feet of Armor. In 1996, federal courts found the jail guilty of substandard and dangerous conditions, and a subsequent consent decree was intended to alleviate problems with overcrowding and safety. But repeatedly over the next decade, the jail was found to be in violation of the decree’s standards, and when the county budget faced deep cuts amidst the recession in 2009, conditions grew even worse.

These administrative problems were compounded by a culture among jail guards that demonstrated complete indifference to prisoner safety. The guards who turned Thomas’ water off did not log their action because it was so common, nor did they check on him because he was someone else’s problem.

Their cruelty would not go unpunished in this instance. Three guards were sentenced to short jail terms following Thomas’ death. In May 2019, Armor and Milwaukee County paid $6.75 million to settle the Thomas’ family lawsuit, the largest jail death settlement in the history of the state, according to Al Jazeera.

The investigations have yet to reveal the answer that Thomas’ family desired: How could an obviously mentally ill man die an easily preventable death while under constant supervision? It is unlikely there will ever be a satisfactory answer. (See: Estate of Thomas v. Clarke, Case No. 2:17-cv-01128-PP, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.). 


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Estate of Thomas v. Clarke