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Illinois officials agree to settle prison health lawsuit

A court-appointed expert would guide the overhaul of health care for Illinois prison inmates in a proposed federal consent decree filed Thursday.

A court-appointed expert would guide the overhaul of health care for Illinois prison inmates in a proposed federal consent decree filed Thursday. | Adobe Stock Photo

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A court-appointed expert would guide the overhaul of health care for Illinois prison inmates in a proposed federal consent decree filed Thursday.

Lawyers for approximately 40,000 state prison inmates announced that the Illinois Department of Corrections’ agreement would settle an eight-year-old federal lawsuit alleging that prison health care is so inadequate it has led to needless deaths.

A U.S. District judge in Chicago must approve the consent decree, in which the state admits no wrongdoing. It provides for a court-appointed monitor to oversee the complete reconstruction of prison-system health care. The monitor would assist in creating a plan for adequate staffing of medical and dental professionals and an outline for implementing other system-wide changes.

The agreement, signed last month by Corrections Department Director John Baldwin and a legal representative of Gov. Bruce Rauner, contains specific qualifications for physicians and other providers, requires upgraded health care space and equipment, hiring staff members dedicated to infection control, developing an electronic medical records system and implementing a stringent quality assurance program.

“The state of Illinois will now be bound by a court-enforceable agreement with specific benchmarks and structure for measuring success,” Camille Bennett, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, said in a statement. “Most important, there will now be a monitor in place to oversee the entire function of the health care system in Illinois prisons. The monitor will be there to demand improvements and accountability.”

Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh cautioned that the settlement is not finalized and needs court approval.

According to the ACLU and its partner, the Uptown People’s Law Center, during lawsuit proceedings, two court-appointed experts, reporting separately in 2014 and again in 2018, uncovered “serious and profound problems” in prison health care. In the latest report, the experts examined 33 deaths and determined 12 were clearly preventable with better care, seven might have been preventable, and in five cases, records were so poorly kept they could not make a determination.

The Corrections Department currently hires an outside private contractor to handle prison health care needs.