Wisconsin prison investigated after bipolar inmate dies from dehydration

A bipolar Milwaukee County Jail inmate died of dehydration sevens days after water to his solitary confinement cell was shut off and never restored, according to local prosecutors, who may press criminal charges against jail staff.

On Monday, prosecutors with the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office began an inquest into the events surrounding the death of Terrill Thomas and whether any staff of the Milwaukee County Jail should be criminally charged for his treatment, according to the Journal Sentinel.

In April 2016, Thomas, 38, was arrested and taken to the jail on charges that he fired shots at a man, then drove to a casino and fired two rounds while inside the building. His family has said Thomas, a bipolar man, was experiencing a mental breakdown at the time. 

During his seven days without water at the jail, Thomas never requested medical attention. Staff eventually found Thomas dead from severe dehydration, a medical examiner concluded. Thomas was one of four people, including a newborn, that died at the Milwaukee County Jail in a six-month period in 2016.

Prosecutors have indicated that they believe jail policy was violated in the case, the Sentinel reported. The inquest will allow prosecutors to publicly question witnesses before a jury, which will then offer a recommendation into whether a probable cause exists to then press charges. Prosecutors can then choose whether or not to follow the jury's verdict.

Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley said Monday that Thomas' bipolar disorder, a condition the jail staff knew about, according to the Sentinel, rendered him "unable to tell people about his basic needs" while in jail.

In his opening statement, Benkley said surveillance video evidence indicates that three jail officers cut off water to Thomas' cell as discipline for the inmate's flooding of another cell.

The officers never documented the action or told supervisors, effectively allowing the water supply to remain turned off as Thomas' health deteriorated.

"This order to shut off Mr. Thomas' water was highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail," Benkley said, according to the Sentinel.

Thomas did not receive water with meals in line with jail policy which dictates that inmates receive water through their cell sinks, prosecutors said. He lost about 35 pounds in the seven days he was in jail.

Other inmates held at the jail during Thomas' incarceration have said they complained to jail staff about Thomas' condition. At least 20 officers worked a shift during Thomas' stay at the jail, the Sentinel reported.

Officers are expected to testify during the weeklong inquest that they were not aware of the water cut-off.

READ MORE: Newborn baby died in jail after staff refused help to laboring mother, former inmate says

"If someone requests, 'Can I get my water turned on?' and I find out their water is off, I turn it on," said one officer, Decorie Smith.

Smith said he was personally unaware of Thomas' situation. Smith and his lieutenant said Monday that the sheriff's office does not allow indefinite shut-off of an inmate's drinking water.

Following the inquest procedure, jurors will address three questions, Benkley said, according to WITI. "What was the cause of Mr. Thomas' death? Was it the result of criminal activity? And if so, who committed the crime?"