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$6.75 Million Settlement Paid To Family Of Milwaukee Inmate Who Died Of Dehydration

The family of a man who died in a Milwaukee jail after the water in his cell was shut off for seven days has been paid a $6.75 million settlement, according to the family's lawyers.

Terrill Thomas, 38, died of dehydration in Milwaukee County Jail in April 2016. The payment was made by Milwaukee County and Armor Correctional Health Services, a company that was contracted to provide medical care for inmates at the jail.

"We think that the amount of the settlement reflects the callous disregard for Terrill Thomas' life and the magnitude of his pain and suffering," Edwin Budge, a lawyer for Thomas' family, told NPR. "Too many Americans die each year in our county jails because of abuse and neglect. ... Hopefully this case serves as a wake-up call to government and corporate officials that operate our nation's jails."

The Thomas family's lawyers said in a statement that it's "believed to be the largest jail death settlement in Wisconsin history."

Milwaukee County did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment about the settlement, and representatives of Armor Correctional Health Services said they were in the process of putting together a statement.

The settlement was concluded amid criminal legal action against the county and the company. As The Journal Sentinel has reported, "Three jail employees were convicted for their roles in Thomas' death. Criminal charges are pending against Miami-based Armor, which no longer had the contract for health care at the jail."

Thomas was arrested after firing a gun in Potawatomi casino, and family members have said they believe he was having a psychotic episode. He is described in the lawsuit as being afflicted with bipolar disorder.

As NPR member station WUWM has reported, former Lt. Kashka Meadors testified about flooding in Thomas' cell after he was taken into custody.

"He had part of the ripped mattress, and he was pushing that down in the toilet as well, flooding it, making the water come out into - out from under his cell into the dayroom area," said Meadors, who has since been convicted for her role in his death after pleading no contest.

She said she ordered his cell's water turned off until his behavior got better. According to the lawsuit, this was a common form of punishment at the jail. Ultimately, nobody turned it back on. During that time in solitary confinement, Thomas was fed "nutraloaf" — what the lawsuit describes as a "foul-tasting brick" so dry that dust from it set off his cell's fire alarm.

"They forced him to spend the last week of his life locked in an isolation cell 24 hours a day, with no drinking water, no edible food, no working toilet, no mattress, no blanket, no shower access, no means of cleaning his cell, no ability to communicate with his family, no relief from constant lockdown, and no meaningful access to urgently needed medical or mental health care," the complaint states.

Other inmates became aware of Thomas' plight and tried to alert guards, the lawsuit says, to no avail. He was found dead in his cell a week later, after he lost 34 pounds during the eight days total in custody, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that Thomas was "subjected to a form of torture by being intentionally and/or recklessly denied hydration."

Thomas' family filed a federal prisoner civil rights lawsuit in 2017, which was dismissed earlier this month and resulted in this settlement.

The facility where Thomas died, lawyers say, has been suffering from staffing shortages for years.

It had been run by Sheriff David Clarke Jr., who has been a prominent ally of President Trump's. Clarke denied wrongdoing in this case, as NPR has reported, and submitted his resignation in 2017.

Budge, the Thomas family lawyer, sees Clarke's departure as a positive sign for the jail. "He set the tone for how it operated and the buck stops with him. ... And hopefully the people of Milwaukee County can feel comforted by the fact that Sheriff Clarke's reign in Milwaukee County is at an end."

As The Associated Press reported, the settlement will be split among Thomas' six children.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.