Black Wisconsin inmate's death by dehydration ruled a homicide

September 15, 2016 8:07 PM EDT

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By Eric M. Johnson

(Reuters) - The death of a mentally ill black man who reportedly begged for drinking water while jailed in Milwaukee and died of dehydration has been ruled a homicide, a county medical examiner said on Thursday.

Terrill Thomas, 38, was found dead on April 24, nine days after he was arrested on suspicion of shooting a man at a casino, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office said. Thomas had bipolar disorder and was being held in solitary confinement based on the nature of the charge against him and his behavior in jail, the medical examiner's office said.

The Journal Sentinel newspaper reported in July that inmates near Thomas had heard him beg for water days before his death and saw that the water faucet in his cell had been shut off.

The newspaper reported that corrections officers had told other inmates that Thomas' water had been shut off because he had flooded his previous cell and his behavior was erratic.

The jail in which Thomas was incarcerated is overseen by the Milwaukee County Sheriff's office, which posted a notice on its website that it was not commenting on the incident until the investigation had been completed.

The medical examiner’s office said that the Milwaukee Police Department was conducting an independent investigation into Thomas' death. The police department did not respond to a request for comment.

Thomas' family told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper that he was in the midst of a mental breakdown when he was arrested and that when he died he was awaiting a court-ordered psychiatric examination.

The treatment of inmates who are mentally ill and the length of time they must wait for a mental heath evaluation has drawn fierce criticism from families and human rights activists in a number of U.S. states.

In Washington state, the family of a mentally ill man who died of dehydration and malnutrition in 2015 after officers placed him in a jail cell without running water reached a $4 million settlement agreement with authorities last December.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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