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Pontiac Correctional Center is among the 12 state facilities that are part of an ongoing legal battle related to improving mental health care for 11,000 state inmates. 

PEORIA — Two years after the Illinois Department of Corrections agreed to sweeping changes in mental health services, many inmates are still going without adequate care, the agency’s director told a federal judge on Monday.

Acting IDOC Director John Baldwin was the first witness called by the state at a civil trial in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.

Judge Michael Mihm will decide if a preliminary injunction he issued in May will be permanent. The injunction requires the state to follow through on major improvements to mental health care.

The judge previously found IDOC acted with deliberate indifference in its care of an estimated 11,000 mentally ill prisoners in state facilities.

“A small but growing number of severely mentally ill inmates are receiving very adequate care,” Baldwin. Others, he admitted, will not see improved care until 1,200 new beds in treatment facilities are available and the state is more successful in hiring staff with mental health credentials.

Harold Hirschman, one of the lawyers for inmates, questioned the timing of the state’s stepped-up efforts to complete new mental health facilities.

Baldwin characterized the progress as ongoing since he arrived in Illinois three years ago and saw a penal system in need of an overhaul.

The slow recruitment of trained staff has cost some inmates their lives, according to the legal team for inmates. The suicide of an inmate at Dixon Correctional Center about a month ago resulted in the firing of an employee of Wexford Health Sources, the contractor providing heath care to state prisons, said Hirschman.

“We try not to put anybody in danger,“ Baldwin said of the staffing issues, but he acknowledged that low staffing levels “certainly could be a factor” in situations that lead to harm.

Baldwin outlined plans for a 250-bed mental health facility to be built on the grounds of the Joliet Treatment Center as an example of the positive change coming to Illinois prisons.

Prior to the opening of a 44-bed unit several months ago in Elgin, the IDOC lacked any hospital-level care for seriously mental ill inmates.

In response to a question from the judge, Baldwin said allegations of physical abuse of mentally ill inmates by staff at Pontiac Correctional Center lodged several months ago remains under investigation.

A California doctor who provides services via a video link to inmates at two minimum-level prisons testified Monday that he provides 35 hours of telepsychiatry a week to inmates at Vienna and Vandalia correctional centers.

Dr. Jack Yen said he was not aware of guidelines from court-appointed monitor Dr. Pablo Stewart advising against the long-distance mental health assistance for initial screenings of inmates and treatment of those with special needs — two categories of inmates routinely seen by Yen.

The time spent with inmates via a video connection ranges from 20 to 60 minutes, a time frame that includes the doctor completing some of the paperwork related to the inmates' needs, according to Yen.

The doctor said he does not receive any reports that measure the effectiveness of his treatment.

In his testimony, Baldwin said "there are huge advantages" to telepsychiatry.

Yen is one of several medical providers expected to testify during the 10-day trial.

Lawyers for the state have emphasized the documentation currently used to confirm the mental health care delivered to inmates. The lack of such records was an issue raised in the lawsuit filed in 2007.

Officials with IDOC and Wexford who oversee the mental health program are expected to testify Tuesday. 

Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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