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Illinois: Conditions Lawsuit Filed by Civilly Confined Sex Offenders Dismissed

Civilly committed sex offenders confined pursuant to Illinois' Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act, 725 ILCS 207/1-99, filed suit in federal court in 2007 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the conditions of their confinement at the Rushville Treatment and Detention Center (Rushville).

After the district court dismissed their claims, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered two issues: whether due process required input from health professionals prior to restricting personal contact among detainees at the facility, and whether the First Amendment entitled detainees to use the internal mail system at Rushville to exchange letters with other detainees. Finding no genuine dispute as to material facts, the appellate court affirmed the dismissal.

The Court of Appeals noted that "persons who have been involuntarily committed are entitled to more considerate treatment and conditions of confinement than criminals whose conditions of confinement are designed to punish," citing Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307 (1982). According to the Seventh Circuit, this case appeared to arise due to "dissatisfaction with Rushville's basic setup," as civil detainees previously "were held at a facility in Joliet that allowed them to mix more freely."

Rushville is divided into six units, with patients separated by type of detainee and treatment requirements. Opportunity for mixing between the units is restricted; the only place where the separate units mingle is during an hour or two of outdoor "yard time." Detainees can pass letters within their units, but must use the U.S. mail to write detainees in other units. The plaintiffs alleged that these restrictions were too severe and fell below minimum standards for sex offender treatment.

In reviewing the applicable law, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that "professional judgment [must] be exercised" when making decisions about conditions of confinement. The Youngberg ruling, which specifically pertained to people with mental disabilities, was extended by the Seventh Circuit to recognize that "(a) committed persons are entitled to some treatment, and (b) what that treatment entails must be decided by mental-health professionals." See: Allison v. Snyder, 332 F.3d 1076, 1081 (7th Cir. 2003).

The plaintiffs contended that under Youngberg, security decisions had to be made by a health professional. The appellate court rejected that argument, however, stating, "Security decisions do not violate Youngberg just because they restrict treatment options. As here, where there has been no showing ... that a security decision is unjustified on security grounds, we will not leap to the conclusion that its impact on treatment is enough to make it a treatment decision subject to Youngberg's rule."

The Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiffs' claim related to the internal mail system at Rushville. The detainees had asked the court to follow the rule set forth in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987): "when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." The Seventh Circuit found there was no "impingement," but only a demand for a "better way" to communicate with detainees in other units other than the U.S. mail. "As maligned as the United States Postal Service may be, there is no First Amendment right to a means of sending letters superior to the one it provides." The district court's order of dismissal was therefore affirmed.

One appellate judge dissented, stating, "Even if security concerns trump almost all other constitutional interests of convicted criminals, the same is not true of those suffering from a mental disorder.... I do not believe that the naked incantation of the term 'security' is enough to relieve the staff at the Rushville Treatment and Detention Center of its duty to exercise professional judgment when it makes decisions that affect the rehabilitative aims of the facility. I would reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment on this point...." See: Lane v. Williams, 689 F.3d 879 (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Lane v. Williams