Nobody decided to kill Terrill Thomas. He kept flooding his cell at the Milwaukee County Jail and making a mess so they just turned off the water to his cell. Then they left it off until he was dead. It took six days. Fellow inmates say he was calling out for water. Corrections officers say they checked in on Thomas every half hour, and “he had made some type of noise or movement” every time. Until the last time, when he didn’t make any type of noise or movement because he’d died of thirst.
How did this happen? It didn’t happen because David Clarke — the sheriff of Milwaukee County, and a top candidate to lead the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration — wanted to kill a prisoner in the most agonizing way imaginable. What kind of psycho would want that? I don’t think Sheriff Clarke wanted to kill a newborn baby either. The baby was the fourth person to die in the jail since April.
These people died because nobody really seems to care what happens in the Milwaukee County Jail. The medical services there are run by Armor Correctional Health Services, a company which oversees healthcare for 40,000 inmates in 8 states. What are you saying about your priorities if you call your health care company “Armor”?
Armor’s glassdoor page doesn’t make it sound like a great place to work. One employee writes: “Stop being bean counters and start listening to your employees. We are asked to do too much: too many patients, too many intakes, not nearly enough staff to be in compliance with your own rules!” Armor was sued by the state of New York this year over 12 inmates who died in the Nassau County Jail, including Daniel Pantera, who died of hypothermia in solitary confinement; they settled the suit last month for $350,000 and are barred for three years from bidding for contracts in the state. Armor does get a very nice endorsement, though, from Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who says right on the front of their website, “Armor stands out as an exemplary model of what partnership in correctional health should look like.” Bradshaw’s department was held liable this year for $22.4m in damages to Dontrell Stephens, and this summer settled for $550,000 against a former U.S. Marshall who said he was roughed up by deputies after stopping to help the victims of a traffic accident.
Here in Wisconsin, Armor’s performance is overseen by Ronald Shansky, a court-appointed monitor and the first president of the Society of Correctional Physicians. Some of what Shansky has to say, based on his visit to Milwaukee County correctional facilities last month:
As for the deaths:
Shansky also, I should say, has a lot of praise for some staff members at the jail, characterizing them as devoted to their jobs and patients and doing the best they can under strained circumstances. And I believe that’s true. Again: the doctors of Armor didn’t want Terrill Thomas to spend six days dying of thirst. Neither did the CEO of Armor. Neither did David Clarke. But it happened. And everyone participated in creating the circumstances under which it happened, and under which it’s likely to happen again: public services outsourced to companies without the staff or resources to do the job right.
It starts with jails. But it goes on to schools, to parking, to Medicare, to policing, to the maintenance of our bridges and roads. You’ll hear people say those services should be run like businesses. We can see in Milwaukee County what that looks like. Does it look good?