PEORIA — Alan Mills, an attorney working for the mental health rights of Illinois prison inmates, recalled being shocked by the condition of such an inmate he visited at Menard Correctional Center.
“He was involuntarily injected with powerful anti-psychotic drugs but was left otherwise untreated. He was locked in a tiny airless solitary cell 24 hours a day, with more than 30 more years to do there,” said Mills. The inmate developed bed sores, he said.
“This agreement will end horrors like this,” said Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, referring to an agreement finalized Wednesday after a seven-year legal battle in federal court.
Under it, 11,000 mentally ill inmates in Illinois prisons will see substantial improvements in their treatment, including major reductions in the time many spend in solitary confinement.
"This truly is a humane and monumental ruling that will have a lasting impact on the people of this state," Harold C. Hirschman, one of the lawyers for the inmates, said in a statement on the agreement.
Last week, the state and lawyers for the inmates agreed to resume work on the settlement that calls for $40 million in construction of new Illinois Department of Corrections facilities and new spending of $40 million annually for new staff to oversee the expanded treatment facilities and care.
A key element in the settlement is the state’s agreement to provide hospital-level care for seriously mentally ill inmates for the first time ever.
A prison expert hired to monitor the progress of the state’s improvements over the past several years told U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm earlier this year that solitary confinement was used as a substitute for mental health treatment.
The state estimated that about 50 seriously mentally ill inmates — all of them in solitary confinement — need the hospital-level care that has not been available.
The location of facilities for the highest level of care was the last piece of the settlement to be completed.
The IDOC also agreed to construct four residential treatment units at Lincoln-based Logan, Pontiac, and Dixon and correctional centers, and the now-closed Illinois Youth Center in Joliet.
More than 300 new clinical staff members will be hired, along with 400 new security staff, for the treatment units.
The overhaul of controversial solitary confinement policies that keep many mentally ill inmates locked up for 23 hours a day is part of the settlement of the federal lawsuit filed in 2007 by Pontiac inmate Rasho Ashoor.
Prisoners with mental illness in solitary confinement for over 60 days will have their out-of-cell time increased from less than an hour a day to 20 hours a week under the agreement.
A representative with the IDOC was not available for comment on the agreement Wednesday afternoon.
Four law firms provided pro bono services on behalf of the inmates: Dentons US, Equip for Equality, Uptown People’s Law Center and Mayer Brown.