Expert panel criticizes medical care at Illinois prisons

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A new report by court-approved researchers paints a bleak picture of medical care in Illinois prisons. | Screen shot of Illinois Department of Corrections website

CHICAGO — A scathing new report by court-approved researchers paints a bleak picture of medical care in Illinois prisons, describing treatment delays, haphazard follow-up care, chaotic record-keeping and a litany of other problems that may have cut short the lives of some inmates.

The 405-page report, which the Illinois Department of Corrections immediately disputed, was filed late Tuesday night in U.S. District Court in Chicago in a class-action suit against the agency, which oversees 49,000 inmates statewide. The report concludes that “Illinois has been unable to meet minimal constitutional standards with regards to the adequacy of its health care program.”

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Within minutes of the filing, the agency issued a brief statement saying the report “uses a broad brush to paint an incomplete picture of the comprehensive medical system in place” at prisons statewide. It added that the authors should not have drawn the sweeping conclusions it did after visiting just eight of 25 Illinois prison facilities.

The panel of experts, who the department of corrections agreed in filings were qualified, also scrutinized a sample of 63 Illinois prisoner deaths from illness in recent years and found “significant lapses” in care in 60 percent of those cases. It called that percentage of prisoners who received shoddy care “unacceptably high.”

The report cited multiple individual cases, including that of a 48-year-old prisoner who pleaded for medical help after he began feeling chest pain and coughing up blood. But the report said it took six months for doctors at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg to locate a softball-size cancerous tumor clinging to his neck area and lung. But it was too late, and he died four months later on Jan. 30, 2013, according to the report.

“The blatant disregard for this patient’s obvious symptoms … is stunning,” the report said. “Despite the patient’s repeated earnest cries for help, including several instances wherein he was essentially stating, ‘I think I have cancer,’ his symptoms were brushed off … until … this dying man could no longer be ignored.”

In addition to the prison visits, the researchers also examined thousands of records the corrections department made available to them.

Inmates, even those imprisoned for murder, are entitled to better care, said Benjamin Wolf, a plaintiffs’ attorney who is also chief legal counsel of the ACLU of Illinois, which joined the lawsuit in 2013.

“The measure of justice of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, including prisoners,” Wolf said. “No one sentenced these guys to suffer and die of inadequate health care.”

Inmate Don Lippert, a diabetic, brought the civil suit in 2010 that led to the new report. His complaint contends that “deliberate indifference” about inmates’ medical care violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Prison officials have denied that allegation.

Plaintiffs argued that part of the blame lies with Wexford Health Services, Inc., one of the named defendants. The state of Illinois in 2011 awarded a 10-year contract worth more than $1.3 billion to provide health care to Illinois’ adult inmates, according to Wexford’s website.

The plaintiffs’ complaint says Illinois pays Wexford a per-prisoner fee and “thus has an economic incentive to provide minimal care.”

Wexford has denied the lawsuit allegations in earlier filings. A message left at its Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, headquarters late Tuesday wasn’t immediately returned.

MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press

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