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Illinois DOC Settles Lawsuit Over Mental Health Treatment

It took eight years but civil rights attorneys finally prevailed in a federal lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), entering into a settlement that requires prison officials to provide 11,000 mentally ill state prisoners with adequate mental health care. The class-action suit was filed in 2007 as a result of draconian cutbacks in mental health services at IDOC facilities.

The plaintiffs alleged violations of their liberty interests under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131 and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. The complaint named individual IDOC employees as defendants rather than the State of Illinois, as required by § 1983, and also sharply criticized Wexford Health Sources, Inc., the IDOC’s private medical contractor, which has been cited for inadequate medical care in Illinois and other jurisdictions. [See, e.g., PLN, March 2015, pp.38, 60; May 2013, p.26].

According to the lawsuit, “Mentally ill inmates in IDOC facilities are chronically underdiagnosed and undertreated ... subjected to brutality ..., and housed in conditions that beggar imagination ... mocked and abused by correctional staff, sprayed with caustic chemicals and derided for their illness.”
Under the settlement the IDOC is required to provide both long-term and acute care for prisoners with serious mental illnesses, and must hire more than 300 new clinical staff to provide that care. Additionally, prison officials have to construct four new residential treatment units and hire 400 new security staff, which will facilitate the release of many mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement where they were previously held. The new treatment units will be built at the Logan, Pontiac and Dixon Correctional Centers, and at the former Illinois Youth Center in Joliet. They will cost an estimated $40 million while the new employee costs are estimated at $40 million annually.

The 34-page settlement also requires prison officials to review the mental health status of prisoners who will be held in solitary for more than 60 days; to release mentally ill prisoners placed in segregation due to minor, non-violent offenses; and to increase out-of-cell time for mentally ill prisoners who remain in solitary for over 60 days.

“I’ll never forget a man I saw at Menard [Correctional Center] who had suffered severe childhood trauma, and had serious mental illness,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center and one of the attorneys involved in the case. “He was involuntarily injected with powerful anti-psychotic drugs, but was left otherwise untreated. He was locked in a tiny airless solitary cell 24 hours a day, with 30 more years to do there. He had developed bedsores, as he literally did nothing but lie in bed, zoned out on drugs 24/7. This agreement will end horrors like his. People will get treatment, be allowed out of their cells, and the use of solitary confinement will be reduced. We look forward to working with the IDOC to make this agreement a reality for our clients.”

“Just because a person with mental illness is in prison doesn’t mean they lose their rights under the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. This agreement will ensure that people with serious mental illness will be given critical treatment they are entitled to under the law,” added Barry Taylor, a vice-president at Equip for Equality.

“This truly is a humane and monumental settlement that will have a lasting impact on the people of this state,” attorney Harold C. Hirshman, who led the legal team in the case, said in a December 23, 2015 press release. “For too long, we have ignored and mistreated the mentally ill population of our correctional institutions due to a systemic failure to recognize their unique circumstances. I believe this settlement will redress and protect the Constitutional rights of these members of our society.”

Primary counsel for the class members included the Dentons law firm, Equip for Equality, the law firm of Mayer Brown and the Uptown People’s Law Center. As part of the settlement, the parties also agreed to the payment of attorney fees in an amount not to exceed $6 million. See: Rasho v. Walker, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:07-cv-01298-MMM.

Incarcerating the mentally ill is a problem in Illinois jails, too. According to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the closure of community mental health centers resulted in his office overseeing what he has called the largest mental health facility in the state – the Cook County jail system.

“While some mentally ill individuals are charged with violent offenses, the majority are charged with crimes seemingly committed to survive, including retail theft, trespassing, prostitution, and drug possession,” he said. According to Sheriff Dart, the Cook County jail houses around 3,500 mentally ill prisoners on a daily basis.

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Related legal case

Rasho v. Walker