On April 24, in a county jail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a 38-year-old black man named Terrill Thomas was denied water until he died of thirst.
Thomas was reportedly suffering from a mental breakdown when he was moved to the jail’s segregation unit and his tap water was shut off; six days later, inmates said that Thomas was still crying out for water. Other prisoners complained to guards, but nothing was done. Last month, the Milwaukee County Medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
Thomas was awaiting court-ordered psychiatric examination when he died. According to reports from other inmates, he was behaving erratically, screaming nonsense, and stuffing balls of toilet paper into his mouth. When placed in a regular cell, Thomas caused his sink and toilet to overflow. That was ostensibly the reason he was moved to solitary confinement and his water was shut off. Put simply, corrections officers withheld Terrill Thomas’s only source of drinking water, killing him, because they didn’t want to clean up his mess.
As horrifying as Thomas’s death was, I believe it is symptomatic of a much a larger problem regarding water access in the United States today. We continue to fail in our duty as a society to provide every American with access to safe, clean drinking water. We have especially failed those that rely on us the most: the poor, the disadvantaged, and those in our collective care.
Events of the last two years have made this devastatingly clear. First there were mass water shut-offs in Detroit; then nefarious lead poisonings in Flint; and this month, dramatic protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline that many fear will contaminate the drinking water of nearly 18 million people. Twelve percent of Native Americans don’t have a safe tap or toilet at home. In fact, more than half a million US households, most of them rural, economically disadvantaged, and of color, still lack basic plumbing facilities. Now a 38-year-old black man suffering from mental illness is dead after corrections officers turned off his drinking water and ignored his pleas for help.
And he’s not even the first.
Thomas’s case, which has yet to trigger criminal proceedings, is the latest in a string of similar dehydration homicides over the past decade. Complaints citing denial of drinking water, many of them on behalf of prisoners with mental illness, have been filed in Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, New York, and South Carolina. In an eerily similar case in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1992, prison officials cut off water to the cell of John Powell, a convicted rapist suffering from severe psychosis. Powell died of thirst after being denied water for 10 days.