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Lawyers Ask Judge To Hold Illinois In Contempt Over Treatment Of Prisoners With Mental Illness


Lawyers are asking a federal judge to hold the state of Illinois in contempt over the way it deals with mental illness in prisons.

The federal courts already ruled Illinois’ care for inmates with mental illness falls below the minimum requirements of the U.S. Constitution.

Harold Hirshman is one of the lawyers representing a class of inmates, and said the state is failing to comply with past court orders.

“I think it would be a good thing if the public knew more about the sad situation where a federal judge tells an agency to do something, and they just don’t do it,” Hirshman said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

The Illinois Department of Corrections already settled the lawsuit, and has built and re-purposed facilities to treat inmates with mental illness.

But Hirshman said staff shortages are still a huge problem. He says the department should have been doing more to enforce its contract with Wexford, the private company hired to run health care in the prisons.

“It’s remarkable when you have a contract with somebody … and they’ve never fulfilled the contract, that you keep letting them have the job,” Hirshman said. “I can’t imagine somebody running their home like that.”

Hirshman said he plans to ask the judge to order the Department of Corrections to spend more money recruiting and retaining mental health workers.

He said Illinois is at least 75 people short of the number mental health professionals needed to comply with court orders.

The Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.

Update | Nov. 20, 2019: A day after this story was published, the Illinois Department of Corrections emailed a statement.

“Mental health treatment is a priority for this administration and IDOC is committed to ensuring incarcerated individuals receive treatment that supports their wellbeing, rehabilitation and reentry into society,” spokeswoman Lindsey Hess wrote. “IDOC has procedures in place to protect prisoners with mental illness from harm and has committed to achieving staffing levels that meet and exceed the minimal level of constitutional care.”

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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