Judge Rules Illinois Prisons Still Not Properly Caring For Mentally Ill Inmates

Oct 31, 2018

Credit flickr/meeshpants

In 2016, the Illinois Department of Corrections reached a settlement agreeing to properly care for the needs of mentally ill inmates. The lawsuit was filed a decade ago on behalf of inmates claiming the lack of care in prisons qualified as cruel and unusual punishment. On Wednesday, a federal judge found the corrections department is still failing to meet those needs. 

The original settlement had 25 provisions the corrections department needed to follow to provide proper care for the mentally ill. It included allowing eight hours of out-of-cell time each week to those in solitary confinement and enhanced treatment for the actively suicidal. 

A June report by an independent court-appointed monitor, Dr. Pablo Stewart, found the department was noncompliant with 18 of those terms. Stewart testified that mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement were “suffering immensely.”

In a statement, an IDOC spokeswoman said the department is disappointed by the findings, but is committed to improving care.  

Harold Hirshman is the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, who are current and former prisoners. He said the most egregious violation is that the department continuously fails to have enough staff to meet the needs they agreed to. 

“It should be a priority because if we imprison these mentally ill people, when they come out, if they’re further damaged that’s not good for society,” he said. 

In a statement, the department “acknowledges its need for additional mental health professionals” and says it has been “laser focused on recruiting new staff.” The prison system has also spent millions on new facilities and the rehabilitation of older ones to care for mentally ill offenders, according to the statement. 

Of the roughly 40,000 inmates in Illinois prisons, around 12,000 are believed to be mentally ill and approximately 5,000 are believed to be "seriously mentally ill." According to court filings, more than 900 inmates with mental illnesses were housed in segregation in Illinois prisons as of June, 2018. 

A press release issued by Uptown People's Law Center said the judge found the violations are largely caused by “systemic and gross deficiencies in staffing.” The corrections department pays a private company, Wexford Health Sources, Inc., to provide mental health care. However, reports claim the company didn't provide the number of clinical hours required by its contract.  

The release also stated that because of the lack of staff, "many prisoners’ psychiatric medication is not managed, and people often just stop taking their medications." 

According to Hirshman, an important part of the 2016 settlement agreement was allowing at least eight hours of out-of-cell time for the mentally ill patients in solitary confinement, especially those who are suicidal or self harming. The trial showed that prisonsers got only two to four hours per week, usually through weekly movies, the release stated. 

The department has two weeks to submit a proposal that corrects the constitutional deficiencies. The plaintiffs will then have one week to respond.