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After Promising Better Mental Health Treatment For Prisoners, Advocates Say Illinois Dragging Feet

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Advocates say Illinois’ treatment of prisoners with mental illness is so bad — the prison system is in a “state of emergency.” They’re asking a federal judge to intervene.

More than a year ago, the Illinois Department of Corrections agreed it needed to improve its treatment of prisoners with mental illness. It settled a decade-old court case, Rasho v. Baldwin, but lawyers for the prisoners say the state isn’t improving quickly enough.

Alan Mills, with the Uptown People’s Law Center, describes inmates with serious mental illness who are self-mutilating, or left to languish in their own waste.

“The depth of just human suffering is appalling. Absolutely appalling,” he says.

Mills says medication is mismanaged and inmates in crisis are not given adequate care.

“They’ve admitted that there are more than 2,000 people in the department who should have been seen by a psychiatrist who have not been," Mills says. "They are working to get that backlog down, but frankly over the summer, since we’ve been discussing things, that backlog has increased rather than decreased.”

The court is being asked to give the state a deadline to fill key psychiatric positions and meet other terms of the settlement.

The Department of Corrections says it’s reviewing the filing, but defends the "significant progress" it says it's already made — giving all staff basic mental health training and opening dedicated mental health facilities in Elgin and Joliet.

"The agency stands by its record," spokeswoman Dede Short said in a statement.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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