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Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: “Judge says IDOC must fix treatment for mentally ill”

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By Andrew Maloney Law Bulletin staff writer

Posted November 2, 2018 11:17 AM

 

A federal judge in Springfield has entered a permanent injunction against the state for poor treatment of its 12,000-plus mentally ill prisoners.

U.S. District Judge Michael M. Mihm of the Central District of Illinois this week ordered the Illinois Department of Corrections to address a laundry list of deficiencies for mentally ill prisoners that amount to Eighth Amendment violations.

In a 50-page order, Mihm recognized the corrections department has made “good efforts” to address the staffing issues and inadequate care in a long-running class-action lawsuit that produced a settlement agreement two years ago.

“However, the record still shows there are systemic and gross deficiencies in the staffing of mental health providers that have a serious detrimental effect on the overall delivery of medical services to the [p]laintiffs,” Mihm wrote.

“Moreover, while there has been a decrease in the overall backlog of mental health contacts, the [d]efendants have relied heavily on the use of overtime to achieve these results. The testimony of the [d]efendants’ own witnesses reveals this practice is unsustainable and there is no Plan B.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2007 by prisoner Ashoor Rasho, who suffers from mental illness. The class was certified in August 2015, and a third amended complaint was filed a month later.

The parties entered into a settlement agreement in May 2016 which included a court-appointed monitor to keep tabs on the state’s delivery of mental health services.

But in October 2017, the class alleged the corrections department was not complying with terms of the agreement concerning treatment plans, evaluations, medications, segregation and crisis treatment and transitions.

Among the claims were that roughly half of the required psychiatrist jobs in the state were filled, treatment plans were not individualized, medications were prescribed without follow-ups and out-of-cell time was unstructured and inconsistent.

Mihm granted a preliminary injunction against the state during the summer, pointing specifically to the lack of staff as creating an “emergency situation” within the system and finding it amounted to “deliberate indifference” on the part of the state.

During the permanent injunction hearing, defendants acknowledged they were not in full compliance with the settlement agreement, but argued they had changed their operations enough to make sure mentally ill prisoners are “reasonably protected” and they are receiving the “minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities” to meet modern standards of decency.

In Tuesday’s order, Mihm acknowledged the corrections department had obtained $150 million to build a new inpatient facility in Joliet and had invested more than $45 million to rehab old facilities and build new ones to provide mental health services. Mihm wrote those efforts “will ultimately improve the care of mentally ill inmates.”

But he pointed again to the staffing issues as a “persistent problem.” Although the state’s chief of mental health services testified the private company the department uses to deliver services is now providing more psychiatrists, Mihm wrote they were still relying on doctors to work weekends, second shifts and off-site in a way that is “unsustainable.”

He noted that prisoners with worsening psychosis, or those who are actively suicidal, are kept in seclusion for entire days and sometimes for multiple days in a row. Additionally, he pointed out that more than 80 percent of prisoners who are segregated from the rest of the population can be classified as mentally ill. Further, the isolation only exacerbates problems.

The lack of professional help for many prisoners means a significant number of them don’t take their medication when they need to, and the eight hours of structured, out-of-cell time for prisoners in solitary confinement had been reduced to between two and four hours per week, primarily consisting of movie-viewing.

Mihm concluded by acknowledging the changes the department needed to make were “monumental.”

“However, the [d]efendants have failed to meet many of the terms. It is clear mentally ill inmates continue to suffer as they wait for the IDOC to do what it said it was going to do,” he wrote. “The [c]ourt cannot allow this to continue.”

The order gives the department two weeks to submit a plan to remedy the problems.

A Lindsey Hess, a department spokeswoman said the agency is disappointed with the court’s decision, but that it remains “committed to continuing to improve the quality of care for offenders on the mental health caseload.”

Hess added that in addition to the money for facilities, the department has reduced segregation time by nearly 50 percent since 2015 and has provided thousands of hours of staff training and additional programming for offenders with mental health issues.

She added that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s commitment to improving the state’s prison system put the case “on a fast track” to improving care for offenders and that the department is “laser focused” on recruiting new staff members.

Amanda C. Antholt, senior attorney for Equip for Equality, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, said Thursday that if the department provides sufficient staffing, the hope is that the quality of care for prisoners will improve significantly.

“Obviously the staffing numbers alone won’t do it,” she said. “But it’s also true that without sufficient numbers of staff you cannot provide quality of care. There’s just not enough bodies.”

Antholt added that the 14-day deadline for the state to submit another plan is plenty of time because everyone involved in the case has been working on it for months and years.

She said that should lead to details that will result in constitutional care.

“What we really need to see in that order and in their plan I think is specifics on how to get there, and qualitative and quantitative measures along the way so we can make sure that progress is being made,” Antholt said.

The case in the Central District of Illinois is Ashoor Rasho, et al., v. Walker, et al., No. 07 C 1298.

 

 

 

Last updated: November 19, 2018

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