Two former Milwaukee County Jail employees are awaiting sentencing for their role in the jail dehydration death of Terrill Thomas in 2016. All three employees who were criminally charged were fired for their role in Thomas’ death—and one has been sentenced already.
It took a while for the employees to go through the legal system, and the case is seeing renewed attention. The county has been taking action to prevent further tragedies like Thomas’ death, when he was in custody at the Milwaukee County Jail on a gun charge.
Thomas, who had bipolar disorder, started acting out, landing him in a disciplinary pod of the jail— solitary confinement. Thomas reportedly started flooding his cell. As Lieutenant Kashka Meadors testified at an inquest about one year after his death: “He had part of the ripped mattress, and he was pushing that down in the toilet as well, flooding it, making the water come out from under his cell into the dayroom area.”
Meadors ordered Thomas’ water to be shut off. It remained off for seven days, and he died of dehydration. Meadors pleaded guilty last October to neglect of a resident of a penal facility, and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
At Meadors’ sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley confirmed that her order was the first domino in a series of omissions that caused the tragedy. "Correctional Officer James Ramsey-Guy who turned the water off never turned the water back on. No correctional officer entered into the log that Mr. Thomas’ water had been shut off," he said. "Correctional Officer Ramsey-Guy didn’t brief the next shift."
Benkley said that on on April 23, another correctional officer was told by inmates that Mr. Thomas had no water and must be checked on. Benkley said that the officer opened the wrong valve and mistakenly concluded that Mr. Thomas had water.
Ramsey-Guy is facing nine months in jail, and former jail commander Nancy Evans is facing three and a half years for misconduct in office.
At her sentencing, Kashka Meadors' defense attorney Ben Van Severen contended that it was informal jail policy to shut water off when inmates were flooding cells.
“The harm that was caused by the flooding is that when his cell floods, and if he’s on an upper level, it seeps down into lower levels. That makes it necessary to move other inmates, and it creates a big headache for the jail staff," said Van Severen. "So that’s why Ms. Meadors gave the shutoff order, and it was a common practice to do that. To give the order, to shut the water off when an inmate is flooding their cell. The reason to do that is to maintain order and safety for the other inmates.”
But Assistant District Attorney Benkley said that Meadors’ order to shut off the water violated policy that required inmates to have 24/7 access to water. He added, though, that the jail continues to shut off water to inmates who flood their cells. But there’s a different protocol in place now. "The jail commander Aaron Dobson has now established a procedure where when water is shut off, immediately, guards offer the inmate water every hour," he explains.
Thomas’ death wasn’t the only problem at the jail. Three others, including an infant, died in the same six months. David Clarke was sheriff at the time. Ultimately, the way to reduce jail deaths is to reduce incarceration rates, says Attorney Pete Koneazny of Milwaukee's Legal Aid Society, with moves like deferred prosecution agreements and policies against jailing people for nonpayment of fines.
But he says the policy to bring inmates water if their access is being shut off is a great policy—with a caveat. "If people aren’t paying attention to the person in the cell and walk by if someone says they forgot to give me water, and you don’t take that seriously," he says. "So that’s the ongoing challenge for anybody working in a jail is to not get jaded and not turn off your listening and paying attention to people."
Over the past three years, the county has been working on systemic changes, to curb the negligence that resulted in the deaths in 2016. This includes wellness officers—captains assigned to listen to inmates, see if they have medication issues and see if they’re assigned to the right place.
"So that was a buffer, and I think that’s an important thing for the custody staff to always have, to consider themselves responsible, because they’re always going to be the first responders," says Koneazny.
Koneazny also says the medical staff should be monitored. Armor Correctional Health Services is a private company based in Florida that has contracted with Milwaukee County since 2013 to provide mental and medical health services to jail inmates. The company has been criminally charged for falsifying records about their check-ups of Thomas. The county is currently in the process of switching health care providers.