In the earning morning hours of April 24, Milwaukee County corrections officers entered 38-year-old Terrill Thomas’ jail cell to find him unconscious. Thomas was in solitary confinement awaiting trial for allegedly shooting a man at a casino during a mental breakdown.
Thomas’ attorneys and other inmates claim that six days earlier, officers had shut off the water supply to Thomas’ cell, allegedly as punishment for his erratic behavior. When he was found unresponsive, his body showed signs of “profound dehydration.” Inmates held near him said that in his final days, they could hear him begging for something to drink.
Officers denied his pleas, and Thomas died as he was awaiting an evaluation for mental health issues.
In September, medical examiners ruled his death a homicide. Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., who oversees Milwaukee County’s jail, has refused to comment on Thomas’ death and the deaths of at least a dozen others in his prisons and jails since he was elected in 2002.
As the investigation into the incident is ongoing, president-elect Donald Trump met with Clarke on Monday to discuss a potential cabinet position — Clarke is reportedly being considered for Homeland Security secretary.
During his 14 years as Milwaukee’s top law enforcement officer, Clarke has become a outspoken law-and-order conservative, frequent Fox News commentator, and loyal Trump supporter. He has said that members of the Black Lives Matter movement are “black slime” that need to be “eradicated,” and he publicly called for violent unrest when Trump said the election would be “rigged.” He doesn’t believe that police brutality is a problem, instead claiming that “war has been declared” on cops in America.
But equally troubling, and less frequently discussed, is that the person who could be tasked with overseeing the country’s counter-terrorism operations and enforcing its immigration laws has allowed more than a dozen people to die under his watch.
Though it’s hard to know how closely Clarke was involved in Thomas’ killing given that his department has remained silent, an attorney representing Thomas’ family said he strongly believes Clarke was aware of the circumstances that led to his death.
“I would not be surprised to learn that what happened in the case of Terrill goes all the way to the top.”
“It’s almost incomprehensible to think that the person who’s charged by statute with running the jail is not fully aware of what’s going on in that jail,” attorney Ed Budge told ThinkProgress. “I would not be surprised to learn that what happened in the case of Terrill goes all the way to the top.”
‘Cell 15 needs water’
When Thomas was arrested for shooting a man at Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Casino, he had been displaying signs of severe mental illness. His family told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was in the midst of a mental breakdown and that they had recently begged a police officer to get him help, worried that he would hurt someone. The officers said they could only respond to specific incidents, and his parents feared that wouldn’t occur until he hurt someone.
Though he had been committed to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex at least three times in the past 15 years, he had never received a formal diagnosis. When he died in jail, he was awaiting a court-ordered psychiatric examination.
“He should have never been there in the first place,” his father told WISN News. “He should have been out in a mental complex somewhere getting treated.”
According to a medical report, Thomas frequently threw food and bodily fluids across his cell. Other inmates said that he would hit the walls and scream seemingly random and meaningless statements.
His family claims that instead of treating him for his mental health issues, jail employees reacted to his outbursts by cutting off his water supply. Marcus Berry, who was in a cell across from Thomas when he died, told the Journal Sentinel that Thomas had no tap water in his cell from the time he moved into the segregation unit.
“Nobody just dies of dehydration.”
“Cell 15 needs water,” Barry remembers telling an officer, who responded that Thomas was asleep and did not need water while he was sleeping. “If something happens to that man, it’s your fault,” Barry told the officer before going to bed one night shortly after Thomas arrived.
Around 1:30 that morning, Barry said he watched officers remove Thomas from his cell in a body bag.
Budge, Thomas’ attorney, said they have found no evidence to suggest that Thomas voluntarily refused water. “Clearly they did turn off the water,” he said. “Clearly they didn’t give him water. Nobody just dies of dehydration.”
Thomas’ parents were not available to comment, but Budge said they are still outraged and devastated by what happened to their son. In an interview with the Journal Sentinel in July, his mother Celia called her son a “delicate little boy.”
“I wake up every night at the time that he died,” she said.
‘All the way to the top’
In a report released November 15, Dr. Ronald Shanksy, a court-appointed medical monitor tasked with reviewing the Milwaukee County jail, found that “reductions in the number of correctional officers” contributed to the jail’s inability to respond to health crises and specifically to Thomas’ death. One-third of all medical positions in the jail are currently vacant, he found.
“Given the shortage of officer staff at the jail, it leaves open to question whether more careful monitoring of him might have altered the outcome,” Shansky wrote in the report provided to ThinkProgress by Thomas’ attorneys.
Staffing decisions would ultimately be managed by Clarke, whose elected role puts him in charge of the county jail. Since Clarke took office in 2002, the Milwaukee County jail has been the subject of numerous reports about improper and inadequate treatment. Between 2008 and 2012, ten people died in custody of Milwaukee County law enforcement after their medical or psychiatric conditions were improperly monitored or left untreated, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation. Thomas was just one in a long line of inmates whose conditions went untreated.
“It does appear that there was a general failure to provide mental health care there to the people who had mental health needs,” Budge said.
Thomas’ death was also one of four that have occurred in the jail since April. In July, a baby was found dead in the jail when a woman delivered it unbeknownst to the staff. The 30-year-old inmate had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and examiners suspect that the baby suffocated either in utero or after birth. An inmate in a cell near her claims that she called for help, but received no response.
“We have very serious concerns about whether the civil rights of the inmates in that jail were respected.”
A third inmate died this year, potentially from heroin withdrawal, and a fourth death occurred in recent weeks, leaving the medical monitor with no time to report on the incident.
During the six month period when those deaths occurred, Clarke spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention, at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, and countless times on Fox News.
He did not once comment publicly about any of the deaths in his jail.
“We have very serious concerns about whether the civil rights of the inmates in that jail were respected,” Budge told ThinkProgress. “It’s clear from the comments [Clarke] has made that he has a general disdain for certain categories of people and civil rights generally, which appear to be at odds with his role and duty as the sheriff of that county and as the person who’s charged with the custody and the safety and welfare of inmates in his jail.”
The Senate will be given an opportunity to review Clarke’s record before confirming him to any cabinet appointment Trump may make, and Budge said he hopes these jail deaths will be thoroughly considered. Still, Trump’s consideration of Clarke for his cabinet is “very scary,” he said.
“I think that it would be a very poor choice for anybody who is remotely concerned about civil rights.”
Tiffany Robertson, Thomas’ cousin and the special administrator of his estate, told ThinkProgress in an email that her family is “appalled” that Clarke could be promoted to lead the nation’s homeland security.
“We wonder how Sheriff Clarke can be trusted to protect America from terrorism if he cannot even protect detained citizens from the cruelty of his own jail guards,” she said. “He has not apologized to our family, held anyone accountable, or accepted responsibility for Terrill’s death. We are appalled that he would be considered for such an important cabinet position.”
This post has been updated with a statement from Thomas’ cousin.