Judge: “Deliberate Indifference” of IDOC mental health care requires federal oversight

CHICAGO — The federal court has found that the state of Illinois continues to violate the constitutional rights of more than 12,000 prisoners with mental illness. The finding comes even after the case had reached a settlement agreement in 2016, but the plaintiffs had to return to court when the IDOC failed to live up to its agreement and constitutional violations continued, according to the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Harold Hirshman, senior counsel for Dentons.

The court issued a 50-page decision finding that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has been deliberately indifferent to prisoners’ mental health, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“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,” Judge Mihm said. The court described the changes needed to IDOC’s mental health care as “monumental.”  (Order pg. 40)

The court-appointed monitor, and doctors for IDOC testified the mental health care in Illinois’ prisons is “dangerous” and an “emergency.” The court expressed concern “with the overall lack of a sense of urgency” in response to the harms being done to prisoners with mental illness.

The court order finds that prisoners in acute mental health crisis—those with worsening psychosis, or who are actively suicidal—are not provided with the mental health treatment needed to stabilize. Instead, they are locked in seclusion cells 24 hours a day with nothing to do, with only 15-minute treatment sessions each day. Hundreds of Illinois prisoners are placed on these “crisis watches” each month. In one recent month, 121 such prisoners remained locked in those isolation cells for over 10 days.

The order also addresses solitary confinement, which is known to exacerbate mental illness. IDOC staff testified to the negative impact of solitary confinement on those with mental illness, yet more than 80% of Illinois prisoners in solitary are classified as mentally ill. The court-appointed monitor, Dr. Stewart, testified that this issue was as serious as any he has seen in his career, and that Illinois prisoners with mental illness in solitary are “suffering immensely.”

The court found that the violations are largely caused by “systemic and gross deficiencies in staffing.” Reports showed that Wexford Health Sources, Inc.—the private company that IDOC pays to provide mental health care in all its prisons—failed to provide more than 10,000 hours of clinical staff time required by its contract to deliver mental health treatment to Illinois prisoners. As a result, many prisoners’ psychiatric medication is not managed, and people often just stop taking their medications. Thousands of prisoners are in danger because of the lack of needed medication management.

In a 2016 settlement agreement, IDOC agreed to provide at least eight hours of structured out of cell time each week to those in solitary confinement, but evidence at trial showed that the prisoners only received two to four hours per week, mostly provided through weekly movies. The court found that this is insufficient: “It is generally accepted that out-of-cell time for mentally ill inmates in segregation is necessary to avoid a rapid decline in mental health.”

“Thousands of people with mental illness throughout Illinois prisons are suffering needlessly from mental illness that could be treated. Their conditions are getting worse during their incarcerations, when our state needs to provide the care needed to make them better so that they can go home to their families and communities.” said Amanda Antholt, senior attorney at Equip for Equality and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “It should not take years of litigation, and multiple court orders, to get the state to provide even the most minimal care people who are desperately in need.”

“Prisoners in Illinois with mental illness have been tortured for far too long. We are thrilled that the court sees this injustice and that there will be federal oversight of the care provided to this vulnerable population,” said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center and one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“We are gratified that Judge Mihm viewed the evidence at both the preliminary and permanent injunction hearings as supporting the claim that the IDOC was failing to provide adequate mental health care to the thousands of inmates who so badly need it. We remain frustrated that despite the IDOC’s promises such legal action was necessary. The IDOC knew what the Constitution required and simply ignored its obligations to these sick prisoners who have nowhere to go for care. A civilized society cares for the helpless. The IDOC has shirked this responsibility year after year. They should be ashamed.” Harold Hirshman, senior counsel at Dentons and the lead counsel of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

The court’s order follows a June 8, 2018 report by the independent court-appointed monitor, Dr. Pablo Stewart, that IDOC has failed to comply with 18 of the 25 terms that it previously agreed to with a settlement agreement. The order gives the IDOC two weeks to submit a proposal to address the constitutional deficiencies. The plaintiffs will then have one week to respond to that proposal.

Case No.  1:07-cv-01298-MMM (Central District of Illinois)

A copy of the judge’s order can be found at https://www.uplcchicago.org/what-we-do/prison/rasho-v-baldwin.html

Press release from the Uptown People’s Law Center

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