Skip Navigation >>

Advancing the Human & Civil Rights of People with Disabilities in Illinois


Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: “Judge: Illinois’ treatment of mentally ill inmates is unconstitutional”

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin logo

June 1, 2018

By Sarah Mansur 
Law Bulletin staff writer


The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has not decided whether it plans to appeal a federal district court ruling last week that the Illinois Department of Corrections’ treatment of mentally ill prisoners was unconstitutional and reflected an “emergency situation.”

A spokesperson for Attorney General Lisa M. Madigan said the office is still considering its options after the ruling from the Central District of Illinois.

Judge Michael M. Mihm’s 42-page ruling granted a preliminary injunction against the state Department of Corrections for violating the terms of a settlement agreement that required the department provide appropriate treatment to mentally ill prisoners.

Among other mandates, Mihm’s ruling orders the department to meet its obligations under the settlement agreement and address the constitutional violations that arose from its inadequate staffing.

Mihm’s order is the latest decision in the class-action case that was filed pro se in 2007 by a mentally ill prisoner, Ashoor Rasho, who argued that the corrections’ department officials had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by failing to provide proper medical treatment.

Marc R. Kadish, of Mayer Brown LLP, took up his case pro bono about a year later.

In August 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois certified a class in the case as any person in IDOC custody, currently or in the future, who was or should have been identified as in need of mental health treatment, defined by the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.

The class filed its third amended complaint, which is the operative complaint in this case, in September 2015.

The lawsuit names multiple IDOC officials as defendants, including current IDOC Director John R. Baldwin. Roger E. Walker was the IDOC director in 2007.

The third amended complaint alleges that IDOC’s insufficient treatment of mentally ill prisoners and inadequate mental health training for IDOC employees violates the constitutional rights of mentally ill prisoners. It also claims that the failure to treat the prisoners’ mental illnesses properly constitutes discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Of the roughly 44,000 inmates in IDOC custody, more than 12,000 are diagnosed as mentally ill and about 4,800 are considered “seriously mentally ill,” according to Mihm’s ruling.

In May 2016, the parties entered into a settlement agreement as a resolution to the third amended complaint. As part of the settlement agreement, a court-appointed monitor was chosen and his duties included preparing annual reports to assess whether IDOC is in compliance with the provisions of the settlement agreement.

The appointed monitor, Dr. Pablo Stewart, submitted his first report in June 2017. In this report, he wrote that “IDOC continues to have challenges in meeting the first-year requirements of the Settlement Agreement,” including “the grossly insufficient and extremely poor quality of psychiatric services.”

In October 2017, the class filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement that argued IDOC was not in compliance with the agreement in the areas of treatment plans, evaluations, medications, segregation and crisis treatment and transitions. The motion sought a preliminary injunction from the court to bring IDOC in compliance with the agreement.

In response to the motion, attorneys for IDOC argued that the prisoners are not entitled to a preliminary injunction because they have not provided sufficient evidence to prove their claim.

Mihm disagreed with the defendants, finding that the prisoners had met all of the necessary requirement for issuing a preliminary injunction.

Further, he found IDOC officials were not complying with the terms of the settlement agreement in the five areas “because, among other things, they have maintained insufficient staffing levels to address the mental health needs of the inmates.”

Mihm cites testimony from the department’s Chief of Mental Health Services and Addiction Recovery Services Dr. Melvin Hinton who stated that IDOC had only 29 psychiatrists, although it has a systemwide need of 69 psychiatrists.

“The [c]ourt finds that the deficient staffing levels has created an emergency situation, and a situation where the [d]efendants are unable to provide the constitutionally required care. The [c]ourt further finds the [d]efendants have been aware of these deficiencies for an unreasonable period of time, and their failure to address these deficiencies amounts to deliberate indifference,” Mihm wrote.

Mihm concluded the plaintiffs proved that the IDOC officials were “deliberately indifferent” to their mental health needs, which is necessary to establish a constitutional violation.

He cited the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals precedent that systemic deficiency claims in a prison’s health-care facility are considered a category of deliberate indifference claims.

“In this case, the [c]ourt finds there has been a systemic constitutional deficiency in addressing the psychiatric and mental health professional staffing shortage,” Mihm wrote.

In addition to ordering adequate staffing levels, Mihm’s preliminary injunction also orders IDOC to provide appropriate mental health treatment and individualized treatment planning and psychiatric care, among other things.

Kadish and Harold C. Hirshman, of Dentons, represented the class of mentally ill prisoners pro bono. Amanda Antholt, senior attorney at Equip for Equality, and Alan Mills, attorney and executive director at Uptown People’s Law Center, also represented the plaintiffs.

“The department [of corrections] has a lot of work to do — none of it new, none of it radical, none of it surprising,” Hirshman said. “The sad part is this is stuff they should have been doing all along. It’s stuff they promised to do when they settled the case, and it’s now two years later and they are still not doing it.”

Assistant Attorney General Terence J. Corrigan, of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, represented the defendants.

Annie Thompson, a spokesperson for the office, said they are still reviewing the judge’s order.

This case is Rasho. et al. v. Walker, et al., 07-CV-1298.

Last updated: June 18, 2018

This website is made possible by funding support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, both the Administration on Developmental Disabilities and the Center for Mental Health Services of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The contents of this website are solely the responsibility of Equip for Equality and do not necessarily represent the official view of any of these agencies.

Designed & Developed by Firefly Partners