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Federal court holds Illinois Department of Corrections in contempt

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A federal court judge issued an order of contempt against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) on Monday after the Department repeatedly ignored court orders and failed to take appropriate steps to improve health care in the state prison system. 

The court acted after repeated failures by IDOC since 2018 to develop a specific, detailed plan needed to implement and remedy problems in the prison health care system that court experts identified multiple times.

“IDOC’s failure here is staggering,” said Camille Bennett, attorney at ACLU of Illinois, in a statement on Monday. “They were required by court order three years ago to develop a plan to fix the unconstitutional health care deficiencies for our clients across the state, and they have yet to do it. We hope this will wake up their leadership.”

The Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) said that prisoners first sued IDOC in 2010, alleging systemic problems in health care, problems that lead to serious disease, harm and even death for people under the care of IDOC. The lawsuit, brought by named prisoners represented by the ACLU of Illinois, Dentons, and UPLC resulted in an agreement with the State of Illinois in 2018, approved by the court in May 2019.

The agreement required IDOC to develop a comprehensive plan to improve medical care. For more than three years, the Department has failed to take that step, leading the court to enforce the contempt order. 

“The delay in simply developing a plan has resulted in harm and death for people detained throughout the state,” said Harold Hirshman, attorney at Dentons.  “That is not speculation – the court’s own experts have reported this sad reality on a regular basis.”

A report was made public wherein a federal court monitor found on Sunday that IDOC had not made required improvements during the past three years. The report noted that IDOC’s care of the elderly was so bad that it constituted elder abuse, in violation of Illinois law. The monitor describes patients who: 

  • developed bed sores because staff did not turn them in bed, 
  • were left to sit in their own waste in wheelchairs, 
  • wasted away because staff did not bother to feed them, 
  • broke their bones because staff did not help them get out of bed, and 
  • had symptoms of cancer that were ignored until the cancer had advanced so far that it could not be treated. 

“IDOC clearly wants to continue their misconduct with impunity, hidden behind prison walls. Their complete disregard for the health and safety of people in prison should disgust every taxpayer in Illinois. If this was a private nursing home, the way these elders have been treated would trigger a state investigation, and the home would immediately be shut down,” said Alan Mills, executive director of UPLC.

The contempt order on health care provided by IDOC fits a pattern of issues that the Department has failed to address in recent years. Prisoners with a mental illness, for example, have been in court since 2007 trying to force IDOC to provide them with meaningful treatment, represented by Equip for Equality, Dentons, and Uptown People’s Law Center. In May 2016, a settlement was reached in which IDOC agreed to make dozens of changes to ensure that prisoners received the treatment they needed.