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IDOC lawsuit: Mentally ill Black inmates are majority in segregation

prison security fencing
Seth Perlman
/
AP file
Security fences surround the Illinois Department of Corrections' Logan Correctional Center in 2016 in Lincoln.

Black inmates who need mental health care spend more time in segregation and far less time with counselors than their white counterparts in Illinois prisons, according to a new complaint filed in federal court seeking better care for 12,000 mentally ill detainees.

About 69% of those held in restrictive housing were Black, according to statistics for June 2022 cited in a lawsuit filed Sept. 30 in U.S. District Court for the Central District. Black prisoners made up about 54% of the inmate population at the time. Whites comprised 32% of the overall population and 16% of those held in segregation, said the lawsuit.

The court action lays out specific claims involving seven inmates held in the Department of Corrections.

The lawsuit represents a new phase in a 15-year battle between mentally ill inmates and the state. An agreement hammered out by the state and attorneys for inmates diagnosed with a mental illness in 2016, almost a decade after the original complaint was filed, was reversed in a January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

The decision to end the permanent injunction by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm enforcing a settlement agreement was a serious legal setback for inmates and put the two sides on track again for a trial to resolve their differences on how best to overhaul the state’s mental health system behind bars. In its order vacating Mihm’s injunction, the appeals court held that Mihm overstepped his authority under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA) by ordering specific staffing levels and timelines beyond what may be necessary or correct constitutional violations by IDOC.

The court disagreed with Mihn’s finding that the state had failed to make reasonable efforts to correct the widespread shortcomings in care.

Harold Hirshman, who is part of a team of lawyers that includes Alan Mills and Amanda Antholt, explained the consequences of the ruling:

“The settlement agreement is gone, and we are now back on the trial call. All the requirements of the agreement are gone. It is a really sad outcome.”

Also removed with the decision is a court-appointed monitor who visited prisons and compiled a report for Mihm on the state’s compliance with the agreement. In a lengthy dissent, Judge Kennth R. Ripple commented that Mihm’s years of experience handling the complex case put him in the best position to hold the state accountable for slow progress.

The injunction “pointed to specific testimony that demonstrated that these officials knew that the new measures were not capable of meeting the needs of the inmates, that they were unsustainable in the long term, and they would not cure effectively the constitutional violations,” wrote Ripple.

The allegation of discrimination against Black inmates is a new claim and falls outside the PRLA, meaning Mihm is not necessarily bound to “the least intrusive means” required to address the violation.

Response from the Department of Corrections

In a statement to WGLT on whether the state will continue to work towards the terms of the settlement agreement, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) said Monday that “the mental health of the individuals in custody is a top priority of the Department, and the Department remains committed to compliance with its policies and procedures, including those adopted as a result of Rasho (the initial lawsuit), as well as all applicable laws. We continue to work diligently to fill any vacancies throughout the Department.”

The state will respond to allegations in the lawsuit through the litigation process, said the response.

For years, the state has pointed to the difficulties it faced with hiring staff to fill mental health roles as a reason for slow progress in meeting staffing mandates. The two sides frequently disagreed on staffing levels at various times during the protracted litigation.

In the fourth version of the 2007 complaint, attorneys for prisoners noted that 43% of the state’s prison population has a diagnosed mental illness. Almost 4,000 of those prisoners are considered seriously mentally ill. Three experts have been hired to access the IDOC mental health system over the past decade, said the lawsuit “and not one of them has found the care IDOC is providing to be adequate to meet the needs of those in custody.”

The first report authored by expert Fred Cohen in 2012 remains under seal and inaccessible to even Mihm.

The goal of the now-defunct agreement was a plan to address several main areas of deficiency, including inadequate staffing, timely assessment and treatment and medication management. Plaintiffs also complain that the state has not followed through with promises to provide facilities for higher levels of care outside prisons.

In some instances, symptoms of mental illness are met with punishment, including restrictive housing and use of force, said the lawsuit.

“Despite an official policy that requires use of force to be used only as a last resort, it is common for security staff to use pepper spray and mace-ball guns against residents of these unit when they do not comply with an order, regardless of their mental health status,” said the federal filing.

Inmate Patrice Daniels, currently housed at Joliet Treatment Center, has a history of self-injury during his lengthy stays in segregation, according to his lawyers. Daniels needs enhanced treatment for his illness, something his attorneys said is lacking at the facility.

Pinckneyville prisoner Gerrodo Forrest was held in segregation on “investigatory status” without services, said the lawsuit. Forrest sees a mental health professional once a month and spends most of his time in his cell because he has been denied a job or programming opportunities, his legal advocates allege.

J. Herman is a transgender woman held at Dixon Correctional Center where her long history of mental illness and self-harm has allegedly been inadequately addressed by prison staff. The court filing notes she receives no confidential therapy.

Henry Herman has swallowed razor blades and attempted suicide before being housed at Jacksonville Correctional Center. His condition has worsened, according to the lawsuit, during his time in restrictive housing.

Lawyers also claim Rasheed McGee needs a higher level of care at Pontiac Correctional Center, a prison with one of IDOC’s residential treatment units. With a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and bipolar, the inmate has infrequent consultations with a mental health staff member at cell front meetings. The lawsuit accuses staff of being responsible for worsening McGee’s traumatic brain injury by slamming his head into his cell.

Two women housed at Logan Correctional Center, Fredricka Lyles and Clara Plair, are also named in the lawsuit. Plaintiffs claim Lyles suffered serious consequences in June when she did not receive her anti-psychotic medication and Plair, who previously spent 14 years in segregation, “has a hard time getting help when she needs it.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team is again seeking an injunction to stop the alleged discrimination and provide improved mental health care. The current calendar sets a deadline for discovery in September 2023 and a trial in 2024.

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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.