I know better than to expect much sympathy for Illinois prison inmates, even the ones suffering from a serious mental illness.
But maybe some of you will recognize your own self-interest in this matter, considering how 95 percent of these people will get out of prison at some point.
It makes a lot more sense to treat their mental illness in prison than to wait until they are back living in the community, by which time the effects of incarceration may have only made matters worse.
Which bring us to the news:
On Tuesday, lawyers representing 12,000 mentally ill prisoners in Illinois asked a federal judge in Peoria to force the state to meet its agreed obligations to provide them with adequate mental health care.
The state’s “deliberate indifference to serious medical need” constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, the inmates’ lawyers argue.
The filing comes a week after a court-appointed federal monitor advised state corrections officials by letter that poor psychiatric care continues to create a “state of emergency” in Illinois prisons.
The lawyers want U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm to enforce a settlement agreement reached in May 2016 with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration promising to overhaul mental health care in the prisons.
The court monitor, Dr. Pablo Stewart, a psychiatric consultant from San Francisco, credits the state Department of Corrections with making “substantial improvements” to its mental health care delivery system during that time.
But Stewart said those improvements have been undermined by the department’s “grossly insufficient and extremely poor quality of psychiatric services.”
Those services are “exceedingly poor and often times dangerous,” Stewart wrote.
In his latest letter, Stewart reiterated those concerns and called on the Corrections Department to immediately appoint a director of psychiatric services with the authority to hire, fire and redeploy the current psychiatric staff.
Lawyers for the prisoners say Illinois has a backlog of 3,553 inmates who need to see a psychiatrist, which creates further problems in terms of treatment planning, medication management and timely evaluations.
Many prisoners are cut off from their medication prematurely because no psychiatrist has seen them, while others for the same reason are left on their medications long after exhibiting dangerous side effects, their advocates say.
“Thousands of prisoners are experiencing the symptoms of untreated or inadequately treated mental illness, including paranoia, hallucinations, anger, withdrawal, confusion, agitation, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation,” they contend. “To allow one human being unnecessarily to suffer these symptoms is unacceptable. To allow thousands to suffer is a moral and legal catastrophe.”
A Corrections Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit was originally brought in 2007 to challenge what was seen as the state prison system’s punitive approach to mental illness.
In their court filing, lawyers for the prisoners say the state continues to deal with mentally ill prisoners primarily by placing them in isolation, segregated from other prisoners.
They note the court monitor has warned that “a significant majority of inmate suicides occur in segregation, as segregation itself imposes psychic stress.”
Instead of receiving proper treatment, prisoners are often punished for exhibiting their mental illness, the lawyers say.
Long-time prisoner advocate Alan Mills, a lawyer with the Uptown People’s Law Center, said he has received more access inside state prisons because of the settlement agreement and has been appalled by what he found.
“I had never seen such depraved indifference to people’s well being,” he said.
Instead of the intense mental health treatment that’s supposed to be provided, Mills said prisoners are regularly placed in isolation and receive a daily visit from someone who asks four questions:
“Are you going to kill yourself? Are you going to kill someone else? Are you taking medication? Do you know where you are?”
“That passes for treatment,” he added.
The state seems to recognize it has a problem. It’s mainly a matter of finding the will to do what needs to be done.