Illinois is failing to provide adequate health care for prisoners

Last week, the Illinois prison system was held in contempt by a federal judge for failing to deliver a satisfactory implementation plan for addressing the abysmal physical health care provided to Illinois Department of Corrections inmates.

Solving the problem is easy. Rather than contracting with an outside Texas consultant for $1.75 million, listen to the court’s monitor, Jack Raba.Raba is a straight shooter and a hero. He blew the whistle on the late former Chicago Police Det. Jon Burge, who tortured suspects, years ago. His team includes Mike Poisis, who wrote an extensive report on the IDOC system for the court and once was the IDOC medical director.

These are knowledgeable doctors with impeccable integrity. They have spent years thinking about and analyzing the IDOC health care system. Dr. Pablo Stewart, the mental health monitor, has been identifying deficiencies for years as well.

Instead of listening to them and making improvements, the IDOC fights and delays.

The state committed itself to change by entering into a consent decree in the Lippert vs. Jeffreys class action lawsuit on prison medical care in 2018, but an acceptable plan to provide such care has never been submitted to the court. This plan was due three years ago, and a federal court has now held them in contempt for failing to create the plan. The IDOC can’t even begin to fix its health care system without it.

In Rasho vs. Jeffreys, the mental health class action lawsuit, the results are even more troubling. After years of operating under an approved settlement agreement, the IDOC’s lawyers have now repudiated the agreement. The parties are now preparing for a trial, because the defendants never did what they committed to do under the settlement agreement.

Stewart , the mental health monitor, wrote report after report, year after year, detailing the deficiencies of care. These deficiencies have continued during Pritzker’s term. In February, a federal judge held that some of the patients most in need of mental health treatment —those housed at Pontiac Correctional Center’s residential treatment unit — were not getting intensive treatment detailed in IDOC’s own mental health manuals. Instead, they were confined to their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day.

Why did this happen? IDOC says they don’t have enough guards at Pontiac, so prisoners have to remain locked in their cells. But IDOC has known since 2014 that they didn’t have enough mental health or security staff. The problem persists eight years later. Wexford, the private company that provides the mental and physical health care, has never delivered the number of employees called for in its contract. Yet the contract, remarkably, calls for Wexford to be paid in advance for all workers, despite the company never having met the contractual staffing requirements.

There are other persistent problems, too. The IDOC health care system still does not have electronic medical records, a basic feature, in 2022, of a functioning medical care system. The IDOC promised in the Lippert settlement that they would have electronic records by now, but there is still no date for such a system to be implemented.

Pritzker has been a leader in many areas, but not on prison medical and mental health care. Nothing has changed in Illinois prisons in the last three and a half years — if anything, things have gotten worse.

It’s time for the governor to make the changes needed to actually provide physical and mental health care to those with medical and mental illnesses who are suffering in his prisons.

Harold Hirshman is lead counsel in the Rasho v. Jeffreys mental health class action lawsuit against IDOC and lead trial counsel in the Lippert v. Jeffreys health care class action lawsuit.

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