A distraught family is seeking justice after a man was killed by the wilful negligence of his prison guards. They expected that the troubled, mentally ill man would be kept from harm while he was incarcerated.
However, that’s not what happened.
According to the Daily Mail: “Supervisor Kashka Meadors and jail deputy James Lee Ramsey-Guy are both charged with neglect of a resident of a penal facility, a felony punishable by up to three and a half years in prison… Jail Commander Nancy Lee Evans is charged with felony misconduct and misdemeanor obstructing an officer.
Commander Evans allegedly lied to investigators about surveillance footage showing what happened.
“Our expectation when Mr. Thomas was brought into custody was that he would be kept safe,” District Attorney John Chisholm said.
“The allegations set forth in the criminal complaint document that that did not happen.”
Thomas’ guilt or innocence is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if he was in jail because he stole from a convenience store or if he was waiting to go to trial on murder charges. He was in the state’s care and deserved to have his basic needs attended to. Denying water is a cruel tactic that doesn’t belong in American facilities.
The Milwaukee officers, however, treated access to water as a right rather than a privilege. Prosecutors allege that rowdy inmates routinely had their water supply shut off. Two incidents occurred within a month of Thomas’ death.
“All allegations are just that, they’re allegations and that the individuals are presumed innocent until the court decides otherwise,” Chisholm said.
“But to a certain extent that’s what brings us here as well, and that is Mr. Terrill Thomas shared that same presumption and expectation…”
Thomas died from neglect and cruelty. The officers almost certainly didn’t mean to kill him. However, when his water was shut off it was never officially logged. Officers who arrived for the next shift weren’t aware that they needed to turn Thomas’ water back on.
Thomas himself is mentally ill and wasn’t able to speak up for himself before he died. The prison guards who wanted to punish him forgot about what they did.
Thomas’ father, TJ, is horrified by what happened.
“They didn’t give him water. He needed water,” TJ told NBC News, noting that his son had been in solitary confinement when he died.
“[In jail] you have the right to [make a] call… We didn’t hear from them from the time he was arrested until his death.”
Liberal complaints about the nation’s prison system seem more reasonable when such tragedies occur. A man died of “profound dehydration” while in the state’s care.
The fight to bring the disgraced officers to trial has dragged on for a long time.
“Nothing like that should happen in an American jail ever,” Erik Heipt, an attorney representing Thomas’ estate, said.
“Everyone [involved] should be held accountable, even if it was the county’s policy that lead to something like this… It wasn’t just a problem with jail guards. It was also systemic failure.”
Thomas lost 35 pounds before he died. The only food that he was given was some nutraloaf. The officers were using food as a punishment and manipulation tool.
An inmate in a cell close to Thomas’, Marcus Barry, said he asked the troubled man multiple time if he needed water before he died. Thomas said “yes” but nothing happened.
“If something happens to that man, it’s your fault,” Barry told a guard a few hours before Thomas died.
In addition to the case unfolding in criminal court, the Thomas family has also filed a civil lawsuit against the correctional facility, alleging torture.
“He was punished for the manifestation of his mental illness,” Heipt said.
“He was not operating in world of reality. Instead of treating his mental health needs, the jail punished him for mental illness.”
Treating mentally ill adults is a notoriously difficult task.
However, if anyone should be equipped to handle the situation safely, it should be a group of prison guards. Someone who believes that cutting off an inmate’s access to water is a reasonable punishment is someone who doesn’t belong in a position of authority over anyone else.