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IDOC Accused Of Contempt In Inmate Lawsuit

The state operates two dozen facilities with about 32,000 prisoners.
Michael Coghlan
The state operates two dozen facilities with about 32,000 prisoners.

A $15 million fine, plus weekly fines of $1 million, should be levied against the Illinois Department of Corrections for its failure to provide adequate care to mentally ill inmates, lawyers for inmates said in a motion filed Tuesday in federal court in Peoria.

Attorneys for an estimated 12,000 Illinois inmates diagnosed with a mental illness are asking U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm to find the state in contempt for its alleged failure to comply with a 2018 federal mandate to overhaul the state’s mental health care in prisons. The motion filed by Samantha R. Reed, one of the lawyers for inmates, claims that an exact estimate of the harm caused by the shortcoming is difficult to access. But estimates that the state has saved roughly $15 million in wages for staff the IDOC has not hired to provide care and another $1 million in monthly wages for the missing staff was used as a basis for the requested fines.

A spokesperson for the IDOC could not be reached Tuesday for comment on the new court filing.

A contempt finding is necessary, according to the motion, in order to force the state agency to comply with Mihm’s order to boost staffing and provide a constitutional level of mental health services to prisoners.

The human cost of the staff shortages is tallied in the number of inmates locked in segregation without follow-up care for their illness, a situation that inflicts added emotional trauma to vulnerable inmates, according to the petition.

In a July 2020 report, a court-appointed monitor’s review of 933 inmates held in restricted housing determined that almost 30% of the prisoners did not receive a required assessment as part of their time in segregation. The issue is especially dire for detainees entering the prison system through the Northern Reception Center in Joliet, where assessments are key to determining what services are needed, according to the motion.

Lockdowns of state prisons during the pandemic have ended group therapy sessions for most inmates and kept some isolated in their cells for 23.5 hours a day without treatment or activity. One hour of time in a “bullpen cage” at two facilities is logged as out-of-cell leisure time by the state.

“This is cruelty in the guise of care,” said the court filing.

In a July quarterly report to the court, the state noted that nine facilities have restricted medical staff contact with inmates to cell-front consultations. The state operates two dozen facilities with about 32,000 prisoners.

The shortage of psychiatrists, nurses and counselors continues to be a major barrier to improving the state’s mental health system, according to the state. Since the federal lawsuit was filed more than 10 years ago, the IDOC has cited severe challenges with hiring professionals to work in the mental health system.  

The IDOC was ordered to meet required staffing levels within 90 days of an April 2019 court order, a mandate lawyers for inmates contend has not been reached.

The Joliet Treatment Center has seen an increase in incidents of self-harm and crisis watch placements, according to the petition, because the facility lacks enough staff to help inmates with serious mental illness. The situation at Joliet “has only gotten worse with medical quarantines and administrative lockdowns over the past several months,” the motion argues.

A Jan. 26 hearing is set in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.

Copyright 2020 WGLT

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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