NBC News is reporting on the inquest into the jail death of Terrill Thomas, a mentally-ill man who died from profound dehydration. Budge & Heipt represents Mr. Thomas’s estate.
When his son died in police custody last year, TJ Thomas wasn’t told of the torturous circumstances surrounding the 38-year-old’s untimely demise.
He didn’t know that Terrill Thomas, who was being held in the Milwaukee County Jail — run by national headline making Sheriff David Clarke — on shooting charges, had been kept in solitary confinement and suffered an agonizing week without any water before dying.
“They didn’t give him water,” TJ Thomas told NBC News Tuesday. “He needed water.”
Terrill Thomas had been in solitary confinement for seven days in April of 2016 when he died of “profound dehydration” in the early hours of the eighth day, Erik Heipt, an attorney representing Thomas’ estate told NBC News.
“[In jail] you have the right to [make a] call,”TJ Thomas told NBC News. “We didn’t hear from them from the time he was arrested until his death.”
On Monday, an inquest into Thomas’ death began as prosecutors decide whether or not any jail staffers should be criminally charged for turning off the water in his cell, the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reported.
The inquest allows prosecutors to question witnesses under oath before a jury as they decide what legal charges should or could be filed. The Journal Sentinel said the prosecution has not indicated who they are considering charging in Terrill Thomas’ death.
But Terrill Thomas’ father wasn’t in court on Monday.
“It’s been hard, you know what I mean,” TJ Thomas said. “One reason we haven’t been going to that inquest going on now, it’s like bringing all that up. I can’t deal with it.”
Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley told the court that surveillance video shows three correctional officers turning off the water in Terrill Thomas’ cell, according to the Journal Sentinel. They did not inform a supervisor or document that the water had been turned off, Benkley said.
“Nothing like that should happen in an American jail ever,” Heipt said.
Heipt said the only food Terrill Thomas was given was nutraloaf.
“It’s meant to be disgusting. It’s a way of using food and nourishment as punishment, which I have a problem with,” Heipt said.
“Everyone [involved] should be held accountable, even if it was the county’s policy that lead to something like this,” Heipt said. “It wasn’t just a problem with jail guards. It was also systemic failure.”
The Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke’s office both declined to comment to NBC News on the case.
The inquest is expected to last five days, the Journal Sentinel reported.
During the start of the inquest, prosecutors claimed that Terrill Thomas lost 35 pounds, and slowly became frail after the water supply to his cell was turned off, the Journal Sentinel reported.
TJ Thomas said he believes his son was moved to solitary confinement and his water supply shut off because he had blocked his toilet and flooded his cell.
Inmate Marcus Berry, who was in a nearby cell, said he called out to Terrill Thomas and asked if he needed water, according to a 2016 report by the Journal Sentinel. He said Terrill Thomas tried to say something that sounded like, “yes.”
Just hours before Terrill Thomas died, Berry told a correctional officer who he said refused to give the father of six water, “If something happens to that man, it’s your fault.”
TJ Thomas told NBC News he had tried to get his son help for mental health issues.
“He shouldn’t have been there. He had some mental things going on. A mental thing,” TJ Thomas said. “We felt something was going on.”
Heipt said that before being put in solitary confinement, Terrill Thomas was displaying signs of mental illness and was unable to ask for basic needs.
“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.”
Several times before Terrill Thomas’ death, TJ Thomas said, he asked the police for help with his son’s mental health, but he said each time he was told there was nothing law enforcement could do.
Last month, the Thomas family filed a federal lawsuit saying Terrill Thomas was “subjected to a form of torture,” according to the Associated Press.
Heipt said he will file a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Thomas’ estate, regardless of the outcome of the inquest.