When Terrill Thomas clogged his jail cell’s toilet in April 2016, correctional officers should have responded in a way that was sensitive to Thomas’ psychosocial disability, a bipolar condition. Instead, they put him in solitary confinement and turned off his water as punishment. Eight days later, he died from “profound dehydration.” Officers had never turned his water back on.
On Monday, the jury in Thomas’ case recommended that criminal charges be filed against the jail officials involved in his death, and the district attorney’s office must now decide whether to follow that guidance.
The Milwaukee County Jail is not the only one where jail officials have subjected people with psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) to abusive treatment. In April 2015, Keaton Farris – who also had a bipolar condition – died from dehydration at Island County Jail in Washington State after guards turned off his water and declined to check on him. Like Thomas, Farris was denied water because guards thought he might try to flood his cell. Farris’ family later reached a settlement with three counties, describing his treatment as “deplorable, unconscionable,” and “heartless indifference.”
Jails and prisons in the US are governed by extensive rules. When prisoners don’t follow those rules, the discipline can be severe – particularly for prisoners with psychosocial disabilities who may have a harder time understanding these rules. Data shows that a significantly higher proportion of state prisoners with psychosocial disabilities are charged with rule violations, compared to those without such disabilities.
US prisons and jails have taken on the role of mental health facilities, but they are poorly equipped to support inmates with mental health conditions. Diversion programs – such as education aimed at preventing future offenses by the offender, or completion of community service hours – should be accessible for people with psychosocial disabilities. Additionally, officials should improve the mental health services in prisons and jails, and train correction officers in how to respond to misconduct by people who may not understand they are breaking a rule.
Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke has tried to refocus the conversation on Terrill Thomas by pointing to Thomas’ alleged crime – shooting a man and firing a gun in a casino. But the consequence for in-custody misconduct should never be death, and it should never be considered acceptable to put someone in solitary confinement without access to water, regardless of whether they have a disability. Without swift reforms, prisoners with psychosocial disabilities will continue to be mistreated, suffer, and sometimes even die.