PEORIA — Reports of physical abuse of mentally ill inmates at Pontiac Correctional Center should be investigated by the state, according to a doctor's report on the state's compliance with a federal court settlement on prison mental health care.
Although he did not find evidence of corporal punishment in records he examined from 18 prisons, Dr. Pablo Stewart found disturbing examples of inmates held in restraints, including one mentally ill man restrained since May 2017 at Stateville prison, states his report.
Stewart, the court-appointed monitor for a 2016 agreement reached in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, also noted, "... the equally serious, ongoing reports of physical abuse carried out by the custody staff on mentally ill offenders at Pontiac."
Stewart said numerous inmates gave "very credible reports of abuse being carried out by the custody staff especially in the mental health unit and on the North House."
He called on IDOC to conduct a "full scale investigation of this abuse and report the results to the monitoring team."
In a statement Monday, IDOC said abuse claims are taken seriously and referred for prosecution when appropriate. Improvements in staff training and new treatment units are among the improvements outlined in the report, said IDOC.
"We continue to make adjustments in our day-to-day operations that balance safety, security and the needs of our mentally ill population," said the statement.
The 177-page report follows a recent federal court injunction giving the state 90 days to correct widespread deficiencies in mental health treatment of prisoners.
Chicago lawyer Alan Mills, part of the inmates' legal team, said the Pontiac allegations mirror claims he's heard during prison visits.
Daily incidents of staff using pepper spray on mentally ill inmates and less frequent but more serious claims of beatings have been reported, he said.
"My concern is that there are cameras there. I don't know know why someone isn't looking at this," said Mills.
During two years of prison visits, including seven to Pontiac, Stewart encountered hundreds of dedicated mental health staff, custody staff and administrators, said the report. But, he added, "It is a shame that the Department allows the hard work and dedication of these staff to be sullied by a majority of individuals who have no business working in corrections."
On the issue of staff conduct, Stewart also expressed concern for what he considers possible retaliation against mental health workers by Logan Correctional Center staff who may be upset "about the ever increasing mental health focus of the facility," he wrote.
Several cars parked at the facility near Lincoln were "keyed" between December 2016 and 2017, sparking an investigation in the summer of 2017.
Stewart said he also will investigate a more recent incident involving alleged intimidation of a mental health staff member at Pontiac.
The stress of working with a growing number of mentally ill inmates has taken a toll on Pontiac staff, claims Stewart. "The staff are in great need of therapy and support," said the report, while concluding "the degree of stress that plague the staff is no excuse for physical abuse."
The ongoing staffing issues blamed for much of the state's noncompliance with 18 of 25 sections of the federal court agreement — leaving only three areas of compliance — should be reviewed based on a mental health caseload that now surpasses 12,000, said the report.