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Mental illness, incarceration and death


Terrill Thomas’ death from dehydration has been ruled a homicide. It’s hard to imagine how the coroner could have reached any other conclusion, even in a country where drapetomania excited delirium is an accepted cause of death: This is the second such death caused by guards shutting off an inmate’s water at this jail.

Fellow inmates told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel corrections officers shut off the water in Thomas’ cell for the six days before his April 24 death. The jail officers refused the inmates’ warnings that Thomas was sick and in dire need of drinking water, the inmates said.


Berry said jail officers shut off Thomas’ water faucet and toilet in a special unit separate from the general inmate population because he had flooded his previous cell. Thomas turned down food in the days before his death as well, according to Berry.

Police said Thomas, 38, had opened fire at a local casino and shot a man in the chest before his April 15 arrest. A judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation that Thomas was still waiting on when he died nine days later.

I don’t hold any hope that someone will finally, just once, go to jail for killing an inmate. Even though letting someone die of dehydration without any sort of medical support (i.e. lots of drugs) is a way to torture someone to death without touching him, I doubt anyone will face charges. Thomas was black, had a history of mental illness and he was accused of committing a violent crime.

That he was killed as punishment for flooding his jail cell, and that death wouldn’t have been the penalty if he was found guilty of the shooting, will likely be seen as irrelevant, especially if the rest of Milwaukee’s law and justice apparatus takes after Sheriff David Clarke. But since I brought it up, here’s an idea of what Thomas was condemned to when guards shut off his water.

“Thirst, as you probably know, is one of the most potent drives for behavior we have. It may be the most potent we have, more than even hunger,” he said.


The body is about 60 percent water, and under normal conditions, he said, an average person will lose about a quart of water each day by sweating and breathing and another one to three quarts by urinating, he said. In the heat and under more difficult physical conditions, that amount increases, he said.

If it’s not replaced over time and dehydration becomes severe, cells throughout the body will begin to shrink as water moves out of them and into the blood stream, part of the body’s efforts to keep the organs perfused in fluid.

“All the cells will shrink,” Berns said, “but the ones that count are the brain cells. They don’t operate normally when they’re’ shrinking.” Changes in mental status will follow, including confusion and ultimately coma, he said. As the brain becomes smaller, it takes up less room in the skull and blood vessels connecting it to the inside of the cranium can pull away and rupture.

This man, who died of dehydration, during a wilderness survival exercise, suffered delirium and hallucinations before he succumbed, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Victims’ kidneys may shut down first, Berns said, as they continue to lack access to both water and salt. The kidneys cleanse the blood of waste products which, under normal conditions, are excreted in urine. Without water, blood volume will decline and all the organs will start to fail, he said. Kidney failure will soon lead to disastrous consequences and ultimately death as blood volume continues to fall and waste products that should be eliminated from the body remain.

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