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PEORIA — The constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates have been violated by the Department of Corrections, a federal judge told attorneys Wednesday, citing the state's failure to comply with an agreement to improve conditions for thousands of prisoners.

In an oral decision delivered during a telephone conference with lawyers for the state and mentally ill inmates, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm ruled  IDOC violated five major areas of a 2016 settlement agreement reached in a lawsuit filed on behalf of about 11,000 mentally ill inmates.

The judge said a written ruling calling for a preliminary injunction will be filed before a May 22 hearing to consider remedies to the state's violations.

Lawyers for the inmates argued last year that mentally ill inmates are suffering — many of them held in segregation and in need of hospital care  — because the state has made insufficient progress on a major overhaul of its prison mental health system.

Harold Hirshman, one of the lawyers for inmates who was on the phone conference with Mihm, called the decision "extraordinary."

"We're deeply gratified the court accepted our evidence, but saddened we had to provide proof of a situation that should not have happened in the first place," Hirshman said.

IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess said in a statement: “While we are disappointed by the court’s order, the Illinois Department of Corrections remains committed to improving the quality of care for offenders on the mental health caseload. 

Among those improvements is a new hospital unit in Elgin to treat mental illness, the addition of hundreds of mental health staff and a significant reduction in segregation time for offenders, said Hess.

The five areas of deficiency are treatment planning, segregation, crisis care, psychotropic medication and general quality of mental health care.

 A court-appointed monitor testified in December that a critical shortage of psychiatrists has created huge backlogs of psychiatric appointments for inmates.

The state has denied allegations that the agency has been deliberately indifferent to the inmates' medical needs.  Difficulties in hiring mental health staff and doctors at state facilities has put the state behind in implementing the plan, state witnesses told Mihm.

IDOC officials also acknowledged at hearings in March that the primary focus within the prison system — security — needs to change to include mental health treatment and rehabilitation.

The new unit in Elgin provides hospital care for the most seriously mentally ill and a facility in Joliet that once housed juvenile offenders has been renovated to provide residential treatment. Three treatment units also are under construction at three prisons. 

The grimmest reports delivered to Mihm relate to some of the 900 mentally ill prisoners held in segregation, including about 50 who require hospitalization. IDOC staff admitted in their court testimony that it's not uncommon for mentally ill inmates who act up to be placed in isolation where their condition deteriorates.      

The remedies that could be ordered by Mihm include significant increases in hiring of mental health staff, a shift of financial resources to care for the most critically ill and assurances that treatment plans will be developed and the backlogs in psychiatric care eliminated.

A failure by IDOC to remedy the deficiencies could lead to contempt proceedings and the appointment of a receiver who would take over the court-mandated improvements.  

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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