Giant Settlement Approved|for Illinois Prison Care

     PEORIA, Ill. (CN) — A federal judge has approved a settlement that requires Illinois prisons to provide specialized care for approximately 11,000 mentally ill prisoners.
     Drawing from the lawsuit’s claim that Illinois let mentally ill inmates go “chronically underdiagnosed and undertreated,” Dentons attorney Harold Hirshman said in an interview that the state took “a very needy population” and “essentially let them fester.”
     The settlement promises these inmates both long-term and acute care “for the first time ever,” co-counsel at Dentons, Equip for Equality, Mayer Brown, and Uptown People’s Law Center said in a statement Friday.
     “Previously, these very ill people were either relegated to solitary confinement, or left for months in ‘crisis cells,’ where they are stripped of all possessions, left totally isolated from other prisoners, and watched 24 hours a day to ensure they do not commit suicide,” they attorneys added.
     In addition to building residential treatment units, at a cost of $40 million, the settlement also calls for $40 million a year in personnel costs to have more than 300 new clinical staff provide treatment.
     Construction is already underway for facilities at Logan, Pontiac, and Dixon Correctional Centers, and the now-closed Illinois Youth Center in Joliet.
     Dentons attorney Hirshman said he got involved in the 2007 case after representing individuals in various prison cases gave him a “sense that the system itself was flawed.”
     Wexford did not return a voicemail requesting comment on the settlement from Courthouse News. The Illinois Department of Corrections emphasized in a statement that the settlement does involve any admission of liability.”
     IDOC does, however, “recognize that providing adequate care for offenders with mental illness will improve their quality of life and ultimately improve safety within its correctional facilities,” its statement continues.
     Ashoor Rasho is the lead plaintiff in the case. The third amended class action accused the IDOC and its medical-services contractor, Wexford Health Sources Inc., of having “failed miserably to deal with the problem” of soaring instances of mental illness in similarly swelling prison populations.
     These inmates “are subjected to brutality instead of compassion,” the lawsuit states.
     Hirshman said he and co-counsel “found hundreds of examples” of people being mistreated.
     Illinois prisons do not require or monitor medication; sometimes give inmates consultations at their cell doors where everyone can hear, and capriciously transfer prisoners in and out of mental health units, according to the lawsuit.
     Hirshman said people are found “cowering in their cells because they are overmedicated.” He added that guards often taunt their prisoners with mental health issues, and they are encouraged to fight with other inmates.
     Even though segregation units tend to worsen symptoms, that is where mentally ill inmates often end up for misbehaving, according to the lawsuit.
     “Prisoners on suicide watch are neglected, abused, or both,” the complaint states. “They can be stripped naked; placed in a cell with no mattress or blankets; put in four-point restraints.”
     Sometimes mental illness alone accounts for inmates spending more time in prison than those convicted of much more serious offenses, according to the complaint.
     Hirshman said many inmates see “their mental health destroyed by the system,” where prison staff are not properly trained and the facilities to treat the mentally ill are severely lacking.
     Once the agreement takes effect, “all of the major problems will have been addressed,” Hirshman said.
     “We feel like they’re committed to making an enormous step forward,” says Hirshman of IDOC.
     U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm signed off on the settlement Friday.

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