Death in a Cell: the Systemic Abuse of Mental Health Patients in Prison

38 year-old Terrill Thomas died of dehydration while being held in solitary confinement in a jail run by Trump Surrogate Sheriff David Clarke in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin in April 2016. An inquest began on April 24, 2017 during which prosecutors will explain the circumstances of what happened to jurors, who will issue an advisory verdict on any potential charges to be formally filed. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “in his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley said surveillance videos show three corrections officers cut off the water in Thomas’ cell – a disciplinary measure after Thomas flooded another cell – and never turned it back on. The same officers never documented the water cutoff or notified supervisors, leaving fellow corrections officers in the dark.” The water in Thomas’ cell was shut off for eight days, until he died. Thomas’ ability to vocalize his predicament in dying of thirst was hindered by the mental illness he suffers from, bipolar disorder. Like similar cases, those who were supervising Thomas in jail focused on punishing his behavior that stemmed from an untreated mental illness, instead of addressing the lack of treatment

“What policing does now, is it tries to figure out all the details of a crime so we can punish somebody. And in all that we know, in all of science, punishing people does not do anything to prevent crime. That’s why the death penalty doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter that you threaten to kill people, it doesn’t bring the homicide rate down. In fact, it actually increases it in the areas where you have the death penalty. So when you’re punishment focused, you’re not actually looking for solutions,” said Michael A. Wood Jr., a former Sergeant in the Baltimore Police Department, in an interview with me. Wood has been an outspoken activist in favor of police reform since he retired in 2014. He noted that the focus has been on Sheriff David Clarke over the Terrill Thomas incident, which though warranted, ignores the underlying problems associated with the case.”I would really hope that people in this kind of situation look at the death of Terrill Thomas and what Sheriff Clarke has done, and highlight the problem that you can’t just get rid of Sheriff Clarke and this is all fixed. The problem is what enables Clarke to do this and get away with it. If we constantly focus on these individual demons, we miss the entire picture of changing the system and preventing it from occurring again.”

Wood added that what causes cases like Terrill Thomas or another similar case of schizophrenic inmate in South Florida Darren Rainey, where prosecutors claimed in March 2017 that there was no wrongdoing found after Rainey was killed in a scalding hot shower after being locked in it by correctional officers, is that the systemic issues are overlooked in favor of focusing on punishing those in charge at the time. These incidents are not anomalies, but rather symptoms of an incarceration system predicated on punishment over treating the causative issue, in Thomas’ case, his mental illness.

“We are missing the idea that the prosecutors, the police department, and the department of justice are not separate things. These are all the same entity protecting itself,” he said. “Policing only goes after an individual when it can be put off on the individual and it doesn’t indict the system. So when you have an incident like Terrill Thomas’, where you have all this collusion of guards turning off water in cells, an apparent culture of guards treating criminals like this and an obvious disregard for history because this isn’t the first time of prisoners reporting problems. So they’ve been reporting problems for all this time and everything be denied, because these things are all the same system.”

Impunity is often afforded to either correctional or police officers who are caught doing something wrong, whether its a case like Terrill Thomas’, Darren Rainey, or police shootings like Walter Scott in South Carolina, because there are no checks and balances within the justice system to properly hold corruption and abuses accountable. “So they are going to continue to protect their system,” added Wood. “The check and balance that has to be in place is that citizens and regular community members have to have the control and say in all this, otherwise, of course you’re going to end up in this boat. These are people trying to protect their own careers, with their own missions, operating the system that enables them to do that.”

Michael Sainato’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Buffalo News, the Hill, Alternet, and several other publications . Follow him on twitter: @MSainat1

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