National News

Horrific death in jail and calls for justice

By Richard B. Muhammad and Brian E. Muhammad -Final Call Staffers- | Last updated: May 2, 2017 - 1:44:21 PM

Bookmark and Share

What's your opinion on this article?

milwaukee_protest_05-09-2017.jpg
Demonstrators assemble on the steps of Milwaukee County Jail in a May Day protest against Sheriff David Clarke (inset). Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Michael Sears

terrill_thomas_robert_stelter05-09-2017.jpg
(L) Terrill Thomas (R) Robert Stelter, a Milwaukee County district attorney’s office investigator, testifies that jail staff didn’t download video quickly enough in the case of Terrill Thomas. That resulted in some video of him being overwritten. Photo: Mark Hoffman /Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There are significant questions for the Milwaukee County Jail and its Sherriff’s Department about the death of Terrill Thomas, 38, an inmate found in his cell a year ago. The cause of death was “profound dehydration” after being deprived of water for seven straight days, the medical examiner said. Family and an outraged public agree that someone should be held legally accountable for the death of Mr. Thomas.

An inquest convened by the city’s prosecutor believes someone should be punished too. The jurors came back May 1 with a recommendation that some county jail workers face charges.

The jury has recommended criminal charges against seven Milwaukee County jail staffers. The jury’s recommendation followed a six-day inquest that included testimony from jail staff and evidence from county prosecutors. The jury found probable cause to believe the staffers committed the crime of abuse of a resident of a penal facility in the death of Mr. Thomas.

They recommended charges against two jail supervisors and five correctional officers.

It’s up to prosecutors whether to file charges.

The inquest highlighted errors surrounding Mr. Thomas’ death, including the failure to log that his water had been turned off.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke oversees the jail, but the inquest did not target him.

A guard intentionally turned off the water in an isolation cell because Mr. Thomas had flooded a previous cell, according to officials. A jail supervisor insists she only ordered that water to the toilet in the cell be turned off to prevent any flooding.

The jurors recommended charges against two jail supervisors, Nancy Evans and Kashka Meadors, and five officers: James Ramsey-Guy, JorDon Johnson, Thomas Laine, Dominique Smith and John Weber.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said he had no timeline to decide, and that he could charge more people—or fewer.

The jury returned its recommendation just a few hours after morning testimony that the sheriff’s office continued using water deprivation as a form of punishment even after Mr. Thomas’ death. Prosecutors presented jurors with jail logs documenting two cases in which disobeying inmates had water to their cells turned off—both within a month of Mr. Thomas dying. One of the cases happened a week after Mr. Thomas’ death and in both subsequent instances it wasn’t clear when it was turned back on.

“This isn’t the first time this happened. This is a pattern,” Assistant District Attorney Kurt Bentley said.

Mr. Chisholm said he thought jurors were swayed by evidence that showed jail policies weren’t followed and that Mr. Thomas had been left in poor conditions.

“I think it’s just the clear lack of oversight over this entire process that really troubled them more than anything else,” he said.

Mr. Chisholm said he conducted an inquest because what happened was a “major system failure” and he wanted the public to have some input in his decision.

terrill_thomas_05-09-2017.jpg
This is a frame grab of video that was entered into evidence of Terrill Thomas drinking water in a Milwaukee Police Department holding cell, just after being arrested for a gun incident at the Milwaukee Potawatomi Casino. The black box obscures the toilet area on the video. Photo: Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Mr. Thomas was arrested April 14, 2016, for allegedly shooting a man in front of his parents’ house and later firing a gun inside a casino. His family, which is suing the county over his death, has said he was having a mental breakdown at the time he was arrested.

The evidence and testimony prosecutors presented showed several missteps from guards and their supervisors, including the failure to log that Mr. Thomas’ water had been turned off. That action was taken because Mr. Thomas had stuffed a mattress in a toilet to flood the cell he was previously in.

Ms. Meadors is accused of giving the order to shut off water, and Mr. Ramsey-Guy of carrying it out. Prosecutors suggested supervisor Evans had not cooperated fully with law enforcement investigating Mr. Thomas’ death. The other officers had the most contact with Mr. Thomas, Mr. Chisholm said.

Kimberly Perry, the mother of one of Mr. Thomas’ three children, said it was at times difficult to be in court watching the proceedings.

“It was very hard and challenging because how could you do this to an individual? I mean, he wasn’t perfect, but he still was an individual who had rights,” said Ms. Perry, 39.

During closing arguments, Mr. Chisholm told jurors Mr. Thomas’ family had one question they wanted to ask the jail staffers who interacted with Mr. Thomas.

“Had Mr. Thomas been your son, had he been your brother, had he been a close friend, would this have happened?” prosecutor Chisholm said. “I think we all know the answer to that.”

Mr. Thomas suffered a mental disorder and there are questions about whether he received proper services. 

The inquest began April 24—precisely one year to the date of Mr. Thomas’ death.

The alleged actions inside the detention center have been called “horrific” and “barbaric.”  Nothing less than justice from the city and sheriff’s department that oversees the facility will do, say activists.

“That’s an agonizing way to die,” said William Muhammad, local representative of the Nation of Islam in Milwaukee. 

lt_kashka_meadors_05-09-2017.jpg
Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department Lt. Kashka Meadors in court testifying in the inquest into the death of Terrill Thomas. Photo: Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“An inquest is one thing but for the justice system to punish these people is a whole other thing,” he added. The prosecutor doesn’t have a history of charging those who violate the rights of Blacks, said Mr. Muhammad. His attitude was wait and see on the charges—as minimal as they are.

A September 2016, official investigation report provided to The Final Call by the Milwaukee Medical Examiner stated Mr. Thomas was found unresponsive during a routine cell check.

“He was laying naked on the floor of his cell, but that was said to be normal behavior,” the report read, it quoted jail personnel. 

Gregory Loreck, the Medical Examiner’s investigator, documented that Mr. Thomas was in solitary confinement where he was locked up for 23 hours per day.

His cell was “almost completely empty” with “no blankets or mattresses due to his destructive behavior,”  said the report which was mainly based on the accounts of jail guards.

According to Mr. Loreck, there was no trauma to the body except a small amount of dried blood around his groin and running down the side of his right leg.

Mr. Thomas was overheard desperately pleading with correctional officers for water, inmates told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in interviews.

The medical examiner classified Mr. Thomas’ death a as homicide which added weight to questions surrounding other suspicious deaths in the county jail.

The classification drew an angry reaction from Sheriff Clarke, a controversial and conservative leader. In late October, the sheriff reportedly threatened to take Brian Peterson, Milwaukee County chief medical examiner, before the state Medical Examining Board to have him sanctioned or his license revoked for making public the determination of homicide concerning Mr. Thomas.

sheriff_david-clarke_05-09-2017.jpg
Sheriff David Clarke

As of late the otherwise outspoken Mr. Clarke has been uncharacteristically quiet on the case and the jail which fall under his jurisdiction.

Mr. Thomas’ family filed a civil rights law suit in early April against Sheriff Clarke, other individuals, Milwaukee County, Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, CT Corporation System and Armor Correctional Health Services.

“Terrill Thomas’s serious medical and psychological needs were deliberately ignored and neglected while in custody,” the lawsuit charges. The Milwaukee County Sheriff office, Milwaukee County, and Armor Correctional Health Services were responsible for providing adequate medical and psychological care.

The lawsuit alleges Mr. Thomas lost his life due to the “negligence and deliberate indifference” of the parties named. It held Sheriff Clarke “ultimately responsible for the health, safety, security, welfare and humane treatment of all inmates at the Justice Facility, including Terrill Thomas.”

Mr. Thomas was one of three inmates who died at the Milwaukee County Jail last year. An inmate’s baby also died at the jail. The sheriff’s office is also being sued for that death, said media reports. Activists say Milwaukee has no history of doing justice in connection with deaths at the jail.

“Really, there isn’t much accountability,” said Alan Schutz, an inmate advocate with the Milwaukee-based group EXPO-Ex-Prisoners Organizing.

Mr. Schutz gave past examples where people lost their lives allegedly from neglect at the hands of authorities.  One example was the July 2011 death of Derrick Williams, 22, at the County jail, in the back of a police car. 

Mr. Williams’ death was captured on a dash-cam, as he struggled to breathe for nearly 15 minutes without help. His death sparked community outrage when the video footage was released.

The Medical Examiner’s report originally indicated Mr. Williams died from complications of a sickle cell anemia trait. That was later amended to homicide—death at the hands of another.

Trying to get to the truth of the deaths in incarceration and accountability is very difficult, said activists. It has been particularly difficult at the county jail, they added.

“They hide behind HIPPA laws to say they have to remain silent,” Mr. Schultz.  HIPPA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act passed by Congress in 1996 which includes protection and confidential handling of protected health information.

There are doubts raised about whether Mr. Thomas should have been housed in the county jail in the first place, considering his alleged psychological state. Mr. Thomas had a history of mental health issues and was waiting to be seen by professionals at the time of his death, according to prosecutors.

His family told authorities that he was admitted to the Milwaukee Mental Health Complex in 1999, 2011 and 2015 for treatment of the problem.

“Consider that 40 percent of folks incarcerated have some form of mental illness,” said Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee NAACP.

“Treating mental illness in correctional institutions is not the way to address these issues; it’s not making these individuals healthy productive citizens,” he told The Final Call.

Mr. Royal condemned a flawed system that locks people up who need drug and alcohol treatment versus incarceration. There is a dire need for systemic change, he said.  

“We’re trying to reform a system that is punitive and not rehabilitative,” Mr. Royal remarked.  “There is a better way to invest in human capital than just warehousing them.”

Mr. Thomas was in the wrong setting for his needs and  an evaluation should have determined “he needed medical attention, not being locked up in a cage without water,” Mr. Royal added.

Student Minister Muhammad said in Wisconsin there were several recent inmate deaths with Mr. Thomas’ passing being the “latest blatant example.”

According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of inmates who died while in custody of local jails or state prisons has increased. The last available numbers publicly issued was in 2014 and showed 4,446 inmates died in 2013, which was an increase of 131 deaths from 2012. 

Activists question what role “increasingly volatile” rhetoric from Sheriff Clarke may have played in the tragic fates of inmates in his jails.

Mr. Clarke enjoys national notoriety and is frequently featured in the media. He is described as a Black conservative, a reactionary and edgy individual. Mr. Clarke has come under public fire over the death of Mr. Thomas. The Final Call was told by multiple sources that Sherriff Clarke has been largely absent on this death. They blame his detachment on national political ambitions with the Trump administration.

Critics say Mr. Clarke is a Trump surrogate, who locally campaigns as a Democrat, but espouses ultra-conservative views. He came to national attention as a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention’s “Make America Safe Again” night. 

The outspoken sheriff is on record dismissing critics as agents of “misery-inducing, divisive, exploitative and racist manipulation of the urban populations.” He has accused detractors of engaging in a “political jihad” against him for supporting President Trump.

The Final Call reached out to Fran McLaughlin, spokesperson for Mr. Clarke, but the email request went unanswered.

Sheriff Clarke is likely to scapegoat and blame the staff and wash his hands of any responsibility, “instead of openly coming out saying something is terribly wrong and doing something to fix what is wrong,” predicted Mr. Schultz. 

Advocates say deaths behind bars whether under suspicious circumstances, medical causes or accidents always need closer scrutiny.

How inmates are treated and the conditions they are subjected to within the walls of institutions should be investigated, advocates said.

Many believe the fate of Mr. Thomas is connected to the overall vulnerable circumstances of nearly 2 million people languishing in prisons and jails throughout America.

“These are the unheard ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments people incarcerated endure, oftentimes the public feels we deserve that treatment or they even say we are exaggerating,” said Mr. Schultz. 

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Bookmark and Share