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Inmate Dies in Wisconsin Jail After Guards Cut His Water for a Week

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Terrill Thomas, a Wisconsin man held in solitary confinement pending trial, died of dehydration when prison guards shut off his water for seven days. Wisconsin prosecutors are considering bringing criminal charges against the guards.

Thomas had been charged with shooting one man and opening fire inside of a casino. Family members claimed that Thomas, who had untreated bipolar disorder, was in the throes of a mental breakdown. He started his stay in Milwaukee County Jail loud and belligerent, according to prosecutors, even flooding a neighboring cell.

​As a disciplinary measure, a trio of corrections officers cut the water in Thomas' cell – and never turned it back on. Thomas grew quiet and weak, losing 35 pounds in one week. After seven days and two hours, he was found dead in his cell.

Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley, the lead prosecutor on the case, called the decision to shut off Thomas' water "highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail." Prisoners in solitary at Milwaukee are not given drinks with their meals – instead they are instructed to drink water from their sinks, which Thomas could not do.

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Thomas never once requested medical attention or water. Benkley claims that this was due to his bipolar disorder rendering him "unable to tell people about his basic needs." Jail staff knew about Thomas' bipolar disorder, Benkley said.

A key question in the trial will be how aware the corrections officers were of Thomas' condition. Inmates talking to the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel said that they complained to guards about Thomas' lack of water, but guard Decorie Smith testified he had no idea Thomas' water was off and Thomas never asked for more water. 

"If someone requests, 'Can I get my water turned on?' and I find out their water is off, I turn it on," Smith said on the stand.  Both Smith and his superior, Lieutenant Jeffrey Andrykowski, said that sheriff's office policy does not allow for water to be indefinitely shut off.

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Benkley and his fellow prosecutors have called for an inquest, an unorthodox legal process where prosecutors question witnesses before a jury before they file criminal charges. The jury then comes to a verdict as to whether there was probable cause to charge someone with a crime, and what those charges would be.

Prosecutors are not required to follow the jury's verdict, however. Benkley claims that it is clear that prison policies were violated, but that doesn't necessarily mean criminal acts took place. 

The most likely charge would be "abuse of a prisoner," which is a Class I felony (the lowest of the nine classes) in Wisconsin. Class I felonies are punishable with a maximum of 18 months in prison.

In order to prove the charge, the district must prove that the jail staff intentionally neglected Thomas, or allowed Thomas to be neglected while under their care.

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