Report: Illinois’ Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners “Exceedingly Poor and Often Dangerous”
Federally-appointed court monitor exposes shocking problems within IDOC
CHICAGO, IL – The first annual report of a federally-appointed monitor regarding the Illinois Department of Corrections’ (IDOC) treatment of mentally ill prisoners was released to the public today. It confirms the complaints prisoners and their lawyers have made regarding the care provided to prisoners with mental illness. The 113-page report characterizes the psychiatric care as “grossly insufficient” and “extremely poor” in quality.
Shortcomings found by the monitor include:
- insufficient psychiatric staff
- problems with the continuation of medications upon entry into prison
- failure to follow up on powerful psychiatric medication and monitor side effects
- dangerous practices related to the use of medication—including prisoners receiving forced medications
- enormous backlogs in psychiatric evaluations
- a lack of necessary mental health treatment for prisoners in crisis cells
- deterioration of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement
- a lack of planning for the treatment of virtually all prisoners with a mental illness
When Illinois prisoners are suicidal, officials put them in “crisis watch”—a barren cell with no books, radio, TV, paper, or blankets. The prisoner is kept naked, except for a “suicide smock.” The light is on 24 hours a day while a guard watches through Plexiglas. Typically, prisoners are kept here until they claim they are no longer suicidal.
One seriously mentally ill woman at Logan Correctional Center, “Melinda,” continually finds ways to self-harm, including cutting her arms on razor wire on the prison yard fence. Prison doctors refuse to use anesthesia when stitching up her self-inflicted wounds. Most recently, “Melinda” broke a light bulb in her cell and ate it, then was denied proper medical care and written a ticket for destruction of state property. When acting out due to her mental illness, she was pepper sprayed, then charged for the cost of the pepper spray.
The author of the report, Pablo Stewart, MD, was federally appointed as the result of the settlement of Rasho v. Walker, a class action lawsuit brought by Uptown People’s Law Center, Equip for Equality, Mayer Brown, and Dentons on behalf of all prisoners with mental illness in Illinois. “I am well aware that such a major shift in addressing the needs of the mentally ill offenders for an institution as large as IDOC can take time. For issues such as suicide prevention, medication management, use of force, confidentiality, discipline and preventing mentally ill offenders from deteriorating while in segregation, however, the time is now,” Stewart said in the report.
The Illinois Department of Corrections is ahead of schedule with regard to some changes necessitated by the Rasho v. Walker settlement, including opening a desperately needed 44-bed mental health hospital in Elgin, and a dedicated mental health facility in Joliet. Once opened, the new units should help relieve some of the harm being inflicted on those prisoners with the most serious mental illnesses. However, even when these facilities open, thousands of prisoners with serious mental illnesses will still not be receiving the care they require and are entitled to under the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution.
IDOC estimates there are 12,000 prisoners with mental illness in the system; however, many experts think the actual number is much higher.
“We send far too many people to prison who have serious mental illnesses. They need treatment, not prison,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center. “While IDOC has made some significant improvements in its treatment of people with mental illness due to the settlement, the changes are not nearly extensive enough to relieve the suffering of thousands of people in Illinois’ prisons who are being left to deteriorate without proper care.”
“With violations of the agreement out numbering the areas of compliance, our clients are being harmed. Class counsel have initiated the enforcement procedures of the settlement and we hope to see improvements soon,” said Amanda Antholt of Equip for Equality.
“Many important things have been accomplished, unfortunately much that was committed remains to be done,” said Harold Hirshman, senior counsel, Dentons, and lead pro bono counsel in the case.
About Uptown People’s Law Center:
Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) is a nonprofit legal services organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights and eviction defense. UPLC currently has seven pending class action lawsuits regarding jail and prison conditions.
About Equip for Equality:
Equip for Equality is a private, not-for-profit legal advocacy organization and is the federally mandated Protection & Advocacy System designated to safeguard the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities.
Dentons is the world’s largest law firm, delivering quality and value to clients around the globe. Dentons is a leader on the Acritas Global Elite Brand Index, a BTI Client Service 30 Award winner and recognized by prominent business and legal publications for its innovations in client service, including founding Nextlaw Labs and the Nextlaw Global Referral Network. Dentons’ polycentric approach and world-class talent challenge the status quo to advance client interests in the communities in which we live and work.
About Mayer Brown:
Mayer Brown is one of the largest global law firms both by number of lawyers and revenue. The firm has lawyers in key business centers across the Americas, Asia and Europe. Mayer Brown serves many of the world’s largest companies and financial services organizations, including a significant proportion of the Fortune 100, FTSE 100, DAX and Hang Seng Index companies and most of the major investment banks. Mayer Brown provides legal services in areas such as Supreme Court and appellate; litigation; corporate and securities; finance; real estate; tax; intellectual property; government and global trade; restructuring, bankruptcy and insolvency; and environmental.
Last updated: September 05, 2017