Advocates Press for Answers in Milwaukee County Jail Death

Sep 19, 2016

The community learned more, last week, about the death of a mentally ill inmate in the Milwaukee County Jail.

Terrill Thomas
Credit Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office

Terrill Thomas had been in lockup for nine days when he died in his cell on April 24th.

According to the medical examiner’s report, Terrill Thomas died of “profound” dehydration while in solitary confinement.

Fellow inmates say he hadn’t had water for six days and they told jail staff he was sick and needed help.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, or the ACLU, has had serious concerns about inmate access to medical and mental health care for nearly 20 years.

In 1997, the ACLU, along with Legal Aid, filed a class action lawsuit. It was settled in 2001, when Milwaukee County agreed to improve conditions at the jail, and allow medical monitors to inspect the place twice a year.

WUWM’s Bonnie Petrie speaks with Legal Aid’s Pete Koneazny, who participated in the most recent inspection - just weeks after Terrill Thomas died.

“I talked to an inmate who was very upset about it because other inmates had been trying to get attention for Mr. Thomas and were sad that he died and the felt that they had tried very hard to get someone to pay attention to him, so that was particularly disturbing,” Koneazny says.

He says Thomas’s death, coming now, after fifteen years of medical monitoring at the jail is somewhat unexpected because access to medical and mental health care has improved. Beforehand, Koneazny says, the jail went a long-time without a medical director and years without a chief psychiatrist. Then, about two years ago, the county hired a private company called Armor Correctional Healthcare to provide services.

Koneazny says, if staff had followed jail policy, Thomas – who was bipolar - might have been handled differently before he was sent to the segregation unit for flooding his cell.

“People with mental illness are to be screened and approved by the medical staff before going to 4D, and there should be regular rounds by the custody staff every half an hour and medical staff at least once a day, if not more,” he says.

Koneazny says someone dropped the ball, if a man died of thirst.

“The idea that someone could be in that level of distress and none of the people going through paid attention to that, dropping the ball is maybe the kindest way it can be put,” he adds.

Now the ACLU and the medical monitors are among those trying to figure out what went wrong. “If it’s a matter of the policy is appropriate, which it appears to be, and it’s a question of moral or culture to have walk through and say they checked on somebody and in fact didn’t check on people, it may be isolated to a set number of people working in the institution,” Koneazny says. “But certainly we’d like to know how this can be prevented from happening again.”

Armor health care is named as a defendant in several lawsuits, including one the state of New York filed, claiming the company provided inadequate medical care to inmates in Nassau County, several of whom have died.

READ: New York Sues Embattled Jail Health Services Provider Over Alleged Neglect

With regard to the New York state lawsuit, Armor has said in statement: "Armor is proud of its work caring for the inmates at the Nassau County facility."

Regarding Thomas's death, Armor sent WUWM a statement. It says the following:

"Armor’s sole focus is the delivery of quality patient care. Our sympathy goes to the family involved in this situation. A component of quality care is respect for the privacy of our patients and their personal health information. Armor does not comment on our patients healthcare as well as abides by Federal healthcare laws."