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ELGIN — Illinois prison inmates with serious mental illnesses will soon receive hospital-level care as the Department of Corrections puts the finishing touches on the 44-bed Elgin Treatment Center, the first facility to offer such intensive care to state prisoners who have previously been treated inside prison walls.

The mental health unit is part of the state-owned Elgin Mental Health Center that houses about 400 patients.

The Pantagraph toured the Elgin facility and a 422-bed residential treatment center in Joliet this week with IDOC officials, including Dr. Melvin Hinton, chief of mental health and addiction services for the 43,000-inmate prison system that includes prisons in Pontiac and Lincoln.

The two mental health centers are part of the state’s plan to overhaul the care and treatment of an estimated 11,000 inmates who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. That process started several years ago with conversations between behavioral health professionals, IDOC staff and research into what has worked at other states, said Hinton.

“We’re not rebuilding a sytem. We’re building one,” he said.

Remodeling of the Elgin space included security updates, installing beds with round, molded corners and other furnishings that are suicide-resistant. Rooms are painted in “bright, healing colors,” said Dr. Catherine Larry, newly hired as the center's warden.

A clinical psychologist who previously served as assistant warden of programming at IDOC’s Northern Reception Center, Larry said the designation of prisoners as “patients” signals the shift in focus.

“Everything here is a change agent for the positive,” she said.

The cost of staffing and construction could reach $90 million over several years when four more residential treatment centers are completed at the Pontiac, Logan and Dixon prisons and a former detention center for youth in Joliet. The Dixon unit and one phase of the Logan unit are open, with work scheduled to begin soon at Pontiac. 

Inmates will no longer be limited to one location for mental health treatment as the state extends its level of services, said Larry.

“Patients will receive a treatment plan that will follow them when they leave here. All is not lost when they are released,” she said.

The IDOC reached a two-year agreement with the state-owned Elgin Mental Health Center after a lengthy search for a site to provide hospital-level care. The gap in treatment for inmates whose condition surpasses what can be managed by prison staff was the last issue to be resolved in a nine-year federal lawsuit initially filed by inmate Ashoor Rasho.

Lawyers for the Pontiac inmate and thousands of others who joined the class action lawsuit alleged that mentally ill prisoners have languished for years in solitary confinement and suffered without proper care.

The first patients are expected at Elgin before the end of the year after about 100 mental health and security staff are hired.

Alan Mills, one of the attorneys who represented inmates in the federal lawsuit, said a recent tour of the Elgin facility left him encouraged.

"Hospital care is what's been needed for a long time," said Mills. The two facilities that offer the option for inmates to transition from the hospital to lower-level care at Joliet before returning to prison "will absolutely make a difference." 

At the sprawling campus in Joliet, patients with what Hinton calls “tall time” that has kept them behind bars for years, will have a chance to attend classes aimed at helping them cope with their illness and educational courses. Visits to the library are required and a gym will be open for those who have earned recreational time.

Two Behavioral Management Units will house about 100 patients with the greatest mental health needs. The compact, secured rooms that house new arrivals come with few privileges. Rooms with space for personal belongings and the chance to move within the self-contained unit come with improved behavior.

“You move down the hall with the goal to move out” to a less restrictive housing area, said Hinton.

Units located across the campus will house an additional 322 patients who also will receive less intensive care.

Andrea Tack, a clinical social worker who worked as superintendent of the Winnebago County jail before she was hired as warden at Joliet, said helping residents make the transition to life in prison is part of the treatment plan. In some cases, improved behaviors may result in a reclassification to a lower security facility.

Joliet will employ 60 mental health staff and 296 security staff.

The team known as “correctional treatment officers" that will provide security for Joliet and Elgin have received mental health training that qualifies them to be part of the treatment team, said Hinton.

The opening of the Elgin center and Joliet's treatment unit will provide the state with valuable data, said Hinton, to determine the effectiveness of the new model of mental health care. In the case of Elgin, the state will be looking ahead for a permanent solution to its need for hospital-level care when its agreement to use the 44 beds at the mental health center ends.

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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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