The chase: How a Black US man died of dehydration in county jail | USA


Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA – Milwaukee County Jail workers weren’t totally positive what to make of 38-year-old Terrill Thomas when he arrived for reserving on April 16, 2016.

Thomas confronted seven prices together with felony possession of a firearm, reckless endangerment, armed theft and trespassing. He was arrested after firing a gun inside Potawatomi Bingo On line casino in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “He was dealing with 63 years,” stated his son, Terrill Barnes.

However some jail guards additionally suspected the 196cm (6.5-foot), 136kg (299-pound) man’s joyous, largely incoherent rambling, had been indicators of a psychological sickness, prompting authorities to put him in a unit particular to his wants.

Within the days that adopted, Thomas continued to exhibit indicators of psychological misery. He flooded his cell, prompting his switch to a brand new unit the place his water was shut off. Thomas additionally refused to eat.

Lower than eight days later, Thomas was discovered lifeless. 

This undated photograph offered by household lawyer on Could 2, 2017, reveals Terrill Thomas [Family handout/AFP] 

Since then, Thomas’s case has uncovered the failures of the Milwaukee County Jail (MCJ) – and amenities nationwide – to adequately present look after inmates with psychological problems. It has additionally highlighted the legal responsibility issues concerned in outsourcing inmate healthcare to for-profit corporations to chop prices.

The contract

The MCJ and the Milwaukee County Home of Correction has an extended, troubled historical past of offering inmate healthcare. In 1996, Milton Christensen, together with different inmates, sued the MCJ, alleging the situations within the facility had been “substandard”, led “to the infliction of useless ache and struggling”, and “created a menace to the inmates’ psychological and bodily wellbeing”.

The lawsuit was settled in 2001. The settlement stated the jail and home of corrections should meet plenty of necessities associated to inmate care beneath a consent decree, also called the “Christensen Decree”. These embrace eliminating over-population and offering entry to satisfactory healthcare.

In 2008, a Wisconsin Appeals Courtroom held the MCJ in contempt for violating the decree, citing overcrowding and never offering inmates with a mattress throughout the 30 hours required. For not less than 5 years after the 2001 settlement, Milwaukee County was by no means discovered to be in full compliance with the decree, in accordance with native media. These difficulties had been compounded by focused price range cuts to the county as an entire by state and county officers.

In 2009, the then-County Government and candidate for Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, minimize $10m from the Milwaukee County price range via vetoes in opposition to elements of the price range. Walker touted cuts as “surgical” and hoped the strikes would stimulate privatisation of county features.

On the time, David Clarke was sheriff, overseeing each side of the county jails. Earlier than ultimately rising to nationwide prominence because the cowboy hat-wearing, anti-Obama, right-wing sheriff, Clarke used the price range cuts to start advocating for outsourcing inmate healthcare to personal corporations. His primary selection was Armor Correctional Well being Companies. 

Terrill Thomas

Former Sheriff David Clarke waits to talk at a Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore marketing campaign rally in Midland Metropolis, Alabama [File: Carlo Allegri/AP Photo] 

Based in 2004, the Florida-based medical firm at present gives medical look after greater than 40,000 inmates in eight states, in accordance with Armor’s web site. Clarke relayed his technique to herald Armor through e-mail along with his second-in-command, then-Inspector Richard Schmidt. In keeping with emails from September 2011, obtained by Al Jazeera via an open information request, Schmidt and Clarke strategised on the right way to get Armor a take care of the county, acknowledging there can be pushback.

“The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Authorized Help, and Dr. [Ronald] Shansky will do no matter they’ll to cease Armor Medical from a contract. Dr. Shansky completely opposes their staffing plan, calling it negligent,” Schmidt emailed Sheriff Clarke. “If we intend to combat for Armor, the ACLU will take this to courtroom and cease the method.” Schmidt states within the e-mail that ensuing delays in a contract attributable to courtroom battles “will primarily go away a $500,000 to $1,500,000 gap within the 2012 price range.”

By that point, Armor had confronted lawsuits over its providers in Broward County, Florida’s Fluvanna County, Virginia, in addition to in a number of different states.

Learn extra: Who’s David Clarke?

Clarke disregarded Inspector Schmidt’s issues. “It will not go away a gap,” Clarke emailed again. “[County] Board should give you the cash to offset it. It is why we go the price range route as a substitute of a stand alone approval that has no price range implications. We’re not asking them to spend added cash to do it; we’re presenting it as a strategy to SAVE cash.” Confidently, Clarke emailed: “We’ll be effective. I actually do not care if the Board rejects … the place are they going to search out the cash to offset? In the event that they reject with no added funding, we hand them again a deficit. That isn’t spending cash we do not have. Once they ask for a price range correction plan we hand them again the Armor plan. Ultimately, they may get the built-in deficit again. Get it?”

Terrill Thomas

The water to Thomas’s cell, managed by a system often called “the chase”, was shut off [Obtained via FOIA] 

The county additionally had warnings from residents and healthcare suppliers alike. Candice Owley, then-president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Well being Professionals (WFNHP), testified to the county board in 2012 that the county ought to “take time to do an intensive evaluate [of Armor] earlier than terminating over 100 jobs of devoted professionals and additional endangering the case of lives of inmates”. The WFNHP introduced a report back to the county titled, Bribery and Dangerous Medication? (PDF), highlighting instances in opposition to Armor.

However these warnings appeared to ring hole, as Clarke continued to push for Armor to get the contract. In 2013, Armor was awarded its first contract. Three years later, Thomas would find yourself lifeless whereas in Armor and the county jail’s care.

The arrest

Thomas was not new to imprisonment however labored laborious to beat his previous. He was out and in of jail on drug, firearm and different prices. After being arrested for having warrants, working a car with a suspended licence and assault in 2008, Thomas began planning a brand new future, his household stated.

“Him being in jail all these years helped him realise what’s essential,” his son, Terrill Barnes, advised Al Jazeera.

Shortly after finishing his final jail sentence, Thomas opened a automotive lot along with his former cellmate. “He beloved life,” Terrill Barnes stated, including that his father had a ardour for luxurious vehicles.

In 2016, Thomas travelled to Atlanta, Georgia, to purchase three vehicles for the lot. Not lengthy after returning house, the Mercedes-Benz he had simply purchased was stolen.

“That is principally what triggered him off to do the whole lot that he did,” Terrill Barnes stated. Thomas disappeared for days trying to find somebody he suspected was the thief. 

Terrill Thomas

In an undated photograph, Terrill Thomas stands along with his son, Terrill Barnes [Handout/Kimberly Perry/AP Photo] 

Thomas’s mom requested the police to step in, fearing he would possibly do one thing harmful. Thomas suffered from psychological diseases, together with bipolar dysfunction. Police, nevertheless, advised her Thomas first needed to do one thing unlawful. It’s not clear if she knowledgeable officers of his psychological well being situation. Thomas resurfaced after a couple of days, briefly talking along with his two sons at their grandmother’s home.

“The final time I talked to my father he was sitting within the automotive,” Terrill Barnes recalled. He stated at one level his father advised him: “It will get spooky at evening son”. Confused, Terrill Barnes took this as an indication that his father “was beginning to lose it”.

Minutes after talking along with his son, Thomas noticed the suspected thief standing outdoors his mom’s house, Terrill Barnes stated, including that his father fired a pistol into the air earlier than adjusting his purpose. Rounds struck one particular person within the crossfire, who survived. Thomas disappeared once more. A day later, Terrill Barnes woke as much as the information of a person firing a gun inside Potawatomi Bingo On line casino.

It was not lengthy earlier than he realised it was his father.

The chase

When Thomas entered the Milwaukee County Jail in April 2016, he was positioned in Pod 4C, the unit for inmates with psychological sickness and particular wants.

Thomas flooded his cell by clogging its bathroom. Jail guard Lieutenant Kashka Meadors was known as to answer the incident, together with different lower-ranking correctional officers together with James Ramsey-Man. Thomas was moved to Pod 4D, a disciplinary unit used to isolate inmates who had been disruptive or couldn’t be held within the common inhabitants. In 4D, inmates had been stored in solitary confinement, with solely very restricted entry to recreation and privileges.

Valerie Becke, a psychiatric social employee who labored for Armor in 2016, advised Al Jazeera being in 4D is like “having to be in your rest room for 12 hours”. She described it as “darkish, and gross, and loud”.

“Sure inmates would know by the sound of your sneakers who’s coming. It was the craziest factor,” she stated.

[4D is like] having to be in your rest room for 12 hours.

Valerie Becke, a psychiatric social employee

Ordered by Meadors, the water to Thomas’s cell, managed by a system often called “the chase”, was shut off. A number of guards, chatting with Milwaukee Police Division (MPD) detectives in 2016, stated this was a standard safety measure. The water shutoff was not recorded within the jail log, which included essential data to be handed between workers from completely different shifts. Officer Ramsey-Man advised investigators in 2016 water shutoffs occurred “so typically” that it was “not all the time famous within the jail log”.

Meadors knowledgeable her supervisor that Thomas flooded his cell and was transferred to 4D. She left Thomas within the fingers of guards assigned to the unit, in accordance with investigative studies. She advised investigators she didn’t verify to see if Thomas’s water had been turned again on as a result of after shifting him to the unit, he was the accountability of guards in 4D.

Terrill Thomas

In 4D, inmates had been stored in solitary confinement, with solely very restricted entry to recreation and privilege [Obtained via FOIA] 

Over the course of the subsequent 5 days, Thomas would repeatedly slam his fingers or flip flops in opposition to his cell’s partitions, discuss to himself, tempo his cell or stare blankly, in accordance with surveillance video and investigative studies, which cited interviews with inmates in close by cells and a few correctional officers. His water was by no means turned again on.

Marcus Berry, then a 28-year-old inmate in a close-by cell, advised investigators in 2016 that Thomas’s behaviour was inconceivable to disregard. He stated Thomas by no means spoke as nurses checked his blood sugar ranges and blood strain. Berry additionally stated: “He by no means noticed anybody deliver Thomas something to drink in your complete seven days he was there.”

Berry stated on sooner or later at about 4:30pm, a correctional officer working the desk allegedly refused to offer Thomas water as a result of he was “the one CO” on responsibility. The following shift advised Berry at 7:00pm: “He is mendacity right here asleep, he would not want water if he is asleep.” Barry advised investigators that he advised the correctional officers: “If this man dies, his blood’s gonna be in your fingers”. Broderick Summerville, one other inmate, advised investigators a virtually equivalent story.

Terrill Thomas

Thomas was moved to Pod 4D, a disciplinary unit used to isolate inmates who had been disruptive or couldn’t be held within the common inhabitants [Obtained via FOIA] 

Berry stated Thomas at one level was “dizzy and never in a position to stand, weak within the knees, and drowsy”.

Thomas was unable to be moved from the jail to the courtroom for a listening to on April 20, so officers took the bizarre step of attempting to carry the listening to outdoors of his cell. His nude, non-verbal disposition bothered the legal professional, who requested a competency analysis. It’s unclear if the analysis happened.

Correctional Officer JorDon Johnson advised police investigators he recognised Thomas whereas doing his rounds. Johnson knew Thomas from the neighbourhood and lived subsequent door to his mom for years. He tried unsuccessfully to handle Thomas by his nickname, T-Buck, and requested why he had been arrested. Johnson later advised detectives from the MPD that he felt Thomas’s behaviour was uncharacteristic and “not proper”.

Correctional Officer Jeffrey Harley and Psychiatric Social Employee for Armor Correctional Ja-kal Walker each additionally advised investigators they felt Thomas had suffered from a psychological sickness. Walker advised police investigators she noticed Thomas throwing his mattress round his cell, and both ignored her or couldn’t reply. Checking his file, Walker observed he was scheduled to see a psychiatric nurse practitioner “within the close to future”, investigative studies stated.

Terrill Thomas

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner stated Thomas died of dehydration [Obtained via FOIA] 

Detectives in 2016 additionally famous inconsistencies in Thomas’s medical charts. Two nurses who had been grilled by detectives following Thomas’s demise stated the inconsistencies had been as a result of the instances famous mirrored when the knowledge was put into the pc, not when the knowledge was collected. The inconsistencies had been compounded by the communication points reported by MCJ and Armor officers.

Thomas was discovered unresponsive in his cell on April 24. Regardless of life-saving measures, he was pronounced lifeless at 1:57am.

The aftermath

The preliminary reason behind Thomas’s demise was listed as “unknown”, however 4 months after Thomas was present in his cell, the Milwaukee County health worker dominated his demise a murder and stated he died of dehydration.

The conclusion prompted requires an investigation and justice. On the identical time, racial tensions throughout the US and in Milwaukee had been coming to a head. The 2016 police killing of a Black man in Milwaukee led to days of unrest.

Seven correctional officers had been initially charged with wrongdoing on account of Thomas’s demise. The record ultimately narrowed to 3: The jail’s Main Commander Nancy Evans, Meadors, and Ramsey-Man, who every reached plea offers that considerably lowered the costs they confronted. They got sentences starting from 30 days to 9 months in jail.

Terrill Thomas

Photos of James Lee Ramsey-Man, Kashka Meadors, Nancy Lee Evans offered by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Workplace [Handouts/Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department/AP Photo] 

Others, nevertheless, weren’t charged, together with high-ranking officers that group members stated deserved punishment. Amongst them was Sheriff Clarke, who resigned in 2017 because the investigation into Thomas’s demise began gaining traction and dehydration was recognized as the reason for demise.

Clarke, who after resigning appeared often on Fox Information and suggested a pro-Donald Trump tremendous PAC, didn’t reply to Al Jazeera’s repeated request for remark. In 2017, Clarke advised the Related Press Information Company he had no touch upon a civil lawsuit filed by the household associated to Thomas’s demise. As an alternative, he commented solely on Thomas’s legal background.

“I’ve practically 1,000 inmates. I do not know all their names however is that this the man who was in custody for taking pictures up the Potawatomi On line casino inflicting one man to be hit by gunfire whereas in possession of a firearm by a profession convicted felon?” Clarke advised the information company. “The media by no means studies that in tales about him. If that’s him, then not less than I do know who you might be speaking about.”

Fees had been additionally issued associated to medical workers employed by Armor. Investigators known as medical entries made by Armor’s workers “full fabrications”. Three Armor workers members had been named – however not charged – within the first legal grievance in opposition to Armor within the Thomas case. Below Wisconsin legal guidelines permitting firms to be charged as folks, Armor itself faces seven counts of deliberately falsifying medical information. 

Terrill Thomas

District Lawyer John Chisholm discusses legal prices he filed in opposition to three county jail staffers in Milwaukee, for the dehydration demise of an inmate in 2016 [File: Ivan Moreno/AP Photo] 

The corporate additionally faces a single rely of abusing an inmate. Below the felony cost, Armor “could also be fined” not more than $10,000. No workers face jail time and Armor has tried to disconnect itself from their actions. The corporate denied investigators’ assertion that falsifying information was a “company apply”.

Armor has not responded to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for remark.

“This isn’t a mirrored image of Armor’s tradition,” the corporate stated in an announcement to native media in 2018 as soon as its function within the demise went public.

However the firm additionally confronted lawsuits elsewhere. The yr Thomas died, Tulsa Oklahoma terminated its personal contract with Armor. This shadowed the resignation of Sheriff Stanley Glanz, cited in a associated lawsuit in opposition to Armor. Glanz left behind a popularity of corruption, together with “going so far as to condone the falsification of medical information in an effort to cover poor care”. A separate Tulsa lawsuit known as Armor’s medical report disorganisation “flat out loopy”.

The identical yr, an inmate who suffered from psychological diseases died attributable to hunger beneath Armor’s supervision at a Broward County, Florida, jail. The household filed a lawsuit in opposition to the county, which settled within the case. Armor stated it might “aggressively defend” its workers.

4 extra deaths additionally occurred in 2016 in New York jails. Each occurred in solitary confinement. One was dominated hypothermia, the opposite “affected person abandonment”. An analysis of Armor by New York State later revealed a variety of systemic points. Because of this, New York banned Armor from bidding on contracts for 3 years.

After Thomas’s demise, Armor stayed in Milwaukee County for greater than three years. The corporate’s contract led to Could 2019. It was changed with the personal inmate healthcare firm, Wellpath.

Terrill Thomas

The within of Thomas’s cell after he died in 2016 [Obtained via FOIA] 

A 2018 Milwaukee County audit of Armor discovered the corporate by no means met the required 95 p.c staffing degree it wanted to maintain its $16m contract. This deficit spanned a 22-month interval throughout which the county performed the audit between November 2015 and August 2017. County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman advised the City Milwaukee day by day publication in March 2019 he felt the penalties Armor confronted on account of the audit, separate from the Thomas case, “had been a bit low”.

The imprecise language in Armor’s preliminary contract didn’t require the corporate to report staffing ranges. Its workers, the audit discovered, did not report blood check outcomes or guarantee inmates swallowed their remedy. Incomplete refusal of remedy varieties had been additionally signed off by Armor workers.

“Medical workers have a accountability to verify on folks,” stated Becke, the psychiatric social employee who labored for Armor in 2016. “If somebody’s water is off, you could have a legal responsibility to verify on that particular person.”

He was a helper, a giver. He wasn’t a foul particular person in any respect.

Terrill Barnes

In Could, Armor and Milwaukee County paid $6.75m to settle a lawsuit by Thomas’s household.

Thomas’s attorneys stated it was the most important jail demise settlement within the historical past of the state.

“This settlement displays not solely the profound hurt suffered by Mr Thomas and his household, but additionally the surprising nature of the defendants’ misconduct in shutting off this man’s water and ignoring his apparent indicators of misery as he actually died of thirst,” the attorneys stated in an announcement on the time. As agreeing to a settlement limits his household’s potential to additional touch upon the case, Thomas’s household has retreated from public view to rebuild after his loss.

“He beloved life, he beloved the whole lot in it,” Terill Barnes advised Al Jazeera a yr after his father’s demise.

“He was a helper, a giver. He wasn’t a foul particular person in any respect,” he stated, including that he hopes these concerned within the case “all the time keep in mind to stay truthful, even people who find themselves fallacious on this state of affairs. I hope they’ll take this case and make their lives higher”. 



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