The prevalence of violence against defendants and suspects while in police custody has seemed to grow in recent years, particularly with the advent of cell phones, and advocacy/watch groups such as Black Lives Matter. What is less publicized is what happens once the defendant is convicted and sentenced, spending their days in state’s custody. In Milwaukee, the State is facing the prospect of prosecuting a member of jail staff after an inmate died in custody.
Terrill Thomas, age 38, was found dead in his cell. A medical examiner stated that he died of profound dehydration, and the prosecutor’s office alleges that Mr. Thomas had been left alone in his cell for seven days without any access to water. The District Attorney announced it would help an inquest to determine whether charges should be brought against the staff in charge of his care. An inquest is a pretty rare procedural tool, but it is somewhat similar to a grand jury in that a jury must unanimously determine whether there is probable cause – but it must be probable cause as to whether to charge anyone, and to determine what those charges actually should be.
The facts in this case are sad: Mr. Thomas was moved into a new cell after he flooded his previous cell by stuffing the toilet with a mattress. A guard turned the water off to his new cell, according to surveillance video, and no one turned the water back on. The Captain of the jail stated that the commander asked him to review the video the day after Thomas died and report what occurred, saying that the commander was surprised to hear about the failure to get the water turned back on. However, under oath, the commander denied that the Captain ever reported this issue and stated that she was unaware of the cause of Mr. Thomas’s death – leading to deletion of part of the video and no mention of its existence to investigators until almost one year later.
The inquest might reveal a systematic effort by jail officials to withhold evidence; or it might reveal nothing. Regardless, this investigation highlights the risks defendants face post-conviction – something the justice system has been woefully unable (or unwilling) to address. Prisons are full of some of the most vulnerable population, in spite of their violence. Many have mental disorders and deficiencies, inabilities to communicate their needs to prison officials, and of course, violence from other offenders. The problem is not isolated to Milwaukee – in New York, an investigation was reopened after the 2010 death of a schizophrenic inmate who died from fatal injuries. The question in that case was whether the inmate was actually in distress and incapable of following orders, versus the prison’s argument that he was noncompliant after a physical altercation. New video reveals the officers declined to use a gurney to move the now unresponsive inmate, choosing to carry him by his feet and hands instead. CPR was administered – while the prisoner was still handcuffed behind his back, resulting in less effective treatment.
In Florida, a ghastly story emerged from 2012 when a mentally ill man serving time for non-violent drug crimes defecated in his cell and was defiant when asked to clean it up. In response, guards forced him to stand under a scalding hot shower for nearly two hours until he died – effectively boiled to death. As of 2015, 85 non-natural deaths have been referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Criminal defense attorneys are often overworked and underpaid, none moreso than public defenders. To ask them to continue monitoring and keep in touch with their former clients serving time in jail would be a burden. It is up to society to focus on prison as a system of rehabilitation, and ultimately, one that is humane and fair. The government should focus more resources on access to mental health care, and create stronger supervisory bodies for prisons – something increasingly difficult with mass privatization of correctional facilities. Finally, in conjunction with additional supervision, there must be enforcement – both criminal and civil liability, to hit the prisons where it hurts most – their wallets, in order to deter abuse in the future. Professionals and advocates must also do more to champion this cause, realizing that their duties should extend to the humanity of their clients even after conviction, and not just ensuring they got a fair trial.