Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Milwaukee Sheriff Sued Over Another Jail Death

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. is the target of another federal lawsuit over a death in his jail, as family members of a man who died of thirst claim he was tortured in solitary confinement.

MILWAUKEE (CN) – Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. is the target of another federal lawsuit over a death in his jail, as family members of a man who died of thirst claim he was tortured in solitary confinement.

A 25-page complaint filed Thursday in Milwaukee federal court alleges staff at the Milwaukee County jail repeatedly ignored 38-year-old Terrill Thomas' requests for water for days.

Thomas' children – Terrill Barnes, Curtis Piggee and Amari Thomas-Acosta, a minor, along with his mother Michelle Thomas-Acosta – sued Sheriff Clarke, Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division and Armor Correctional Health Services Inc. Richard E. Schmidt, inspector for the sheriff’s office, and two corrections officers are also named as defendants in the wrongful-death lawsuit.

On April 14, 2016, Thomas was arrested by Milwaukee police after officers responded to reports of shots being fired at the Potawatomi Casino, according to the complaint. Thomas was charged and transferred to the Milwaukee County jail the next day.

During his time in jail, Thomas demonstrated signs of "acute psychological disorders," his children say, and officers needed to spend time securing him and keeping him safe during his transfer to jail.

When he arrived at the county jail, correctional staff immediately placed Thomas in the special-housing unit of the jail because of the offenses charged and his alleged conduct. According to the complaint, inmates in the special-housing unit are segregated from other prisoners, locked up 24 hours per day in solitary confinement in one-man cells.

Thomas' children say at some point the water in his cell was turned off. Marcus Berry, a fellow inmate, repeatedly urged corrections officers to give Thomas water the day before he died, they claim.

"Mr. Berry was in a cell across from Terrill Thomas the last six days of Terrill Thomas’s life. Mr. Berry's urging and pleas were repeatedly ignored by the defendants,” the complaint states.

By April 24, 10 days after his arrest, Thomas was reported unresponsive in his cell during a routine check by a guard.

When medical staff arrived, Thomas was lying naked on the floor of his cell, which was noted as "normal behavior" by the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office, according to the lawsuit.

Jail staff reportedly noted upon finding Thomas that he had "dried blood around his groin and trailing down his right leg, which was clearly visible upon inspection of his naked body.”

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner ruled his death by dehydration a homicide, according to the complaint. His family says Thomas was “subjected to a form of torture by being intentionally and/or recklessly denied hydration.”

“Prisoners confined near Terrill Thomas’s cell overheard his cries for water for days, yet correctional, medical and psychological personnel ignored those cries and never gave Terrill Thomas water, presumably as some misguided form of punishment or retribution for the alleged crimes that brought him to the justice facility,” the lawsuit states.

Thomas' children say Clarke, Schmidt, the jail staff and Armor Correction Health Service all directly participated in depriving Thomas of water.

They seek compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a consent decree specifically prohibiting correctional staff from depriving inmates of water and other conduct detrimental to the health and safety of inmates. The family is represented by Walter Stern III in Kenosha, Wis.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Sheriff Clarke said in an email to the Associated Press that he had no comment but noted Thomas' alleged criminal record.

"I have nearly 1000 inmates. I don't know all their names but is this the guy who was in custody for shooting up the Potawatomi Casino causing one man to be hit by gunfire while in possession of a firearm by a career convicted felon?" he reportedly said. "The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about."

According to local news reports, Thomas was one of four people to die in the Milwaukee County jail during a six-month period in 2016.

In one incident, inmate Shadé Swayzer, who was eight months pregnant, gave birth alone in her maximum-security cell and her baby died hours later as a result of correctional staff’s alleged refusal to provide care.

Sheriff Clarke was sued in December over the death of the newborn.

Clarke was most recently sued last month by a Wisconsin man who says the sheriff illegally detained and questioned him about his political views after he shook his head at Clarke during a flight from Dallas to Milwaukee.

The conservative sheriff is a frequent Fox News contributor, gun rights advocate and vocal critic of anti-police brutality movements. Clarke, also a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, was recently passed over for a top Department of Homeland Security position in the president’s cabinet.

Categories / Civil Rights

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.