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Pontiac Correctional Center

This March 29, 2013, file photo shows one of the buildings at Pontiac Correctional Center, Pontiac.

PEORIA — An eight-year federal court battle to overhaul mental health treatment in Illinois prisons was resolved Friday with a judge ruling that the settlement between inmates and the state, while not perfect, is fair and will improve the lives of thousands of inmates.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm, who has expressed frustration in the past with delays in resolving the litigation, reviewed the settlement reached in December between the state and lawyers for about 11,000 inmates with some form of mental illness.

“We’re absolutely thrilled we were able to reach an agreement. We agree with Judge Mihm that the agreement is not perfect but it really addresses the severe suffering by our clients,” said Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago after the hearing. He was one of the lawyers for the inmates.

The lawsuit filed in 2007 on behalf of mentally ill inmate Ashoor Rasho was later expanded to a class action. Rasho, 41, an inmate housed at Pontiac Correctional Center who is set for release in 2021, was one of four inmates linked electronically to the Peoria courtroom from four prisons.

Rasho told Mihm he was disappointed the agreement allows for the removal of the lowest level of infractions that put some inmates in segregation while his higher-level sanctions will leave him in a cell 23 hours a day.

Mihm noted that he had received 340 objections to the settlement from inmates, and “I’ve read every single objection word for word.”

Lawyers for the inmates noted the settlement does not include money damages for inmates but involves $60 million in construction costs for new facilities and another $30 million annually for increased mental health and security staff.

Under the new plan, inmates will be screened for mental health issues soon after their arrival at prison and receive treatment in four new residential treatment units. Hospital-level care currently unavailable to inmates will be available for the most seriously mentally ill.

IDOC lawyer Terence Corrigan told Mihm the state has moved forward with its commitment to fix mental health issues. A unit has opened at Dixon Correctional Center for 330 offenders, and an 80-bed unit is set to open at the women’s prison in Lincoln later this month.

The initial stage of a review of inmates in segregation has resulted in 117,000 days being cut from the sentences on 64 prisoners.

Inmate Clara Plair, 33, who spoke Friday through a video link with the Lincoln facility, had 60 years removed from her sentence after such a review.

Many of the improvements outlined in the plan are contingent upon the state approving a budget.

The budget issue “becomes the 900-pound gorilla in the room,” Mihm said Friday. The agreement allows inmates to return to court if timelines for improvements are not followed.

IDOC acknowledged to Mihm that money is not currently available to secure the 104 hospital beds required in the agreement for the most severely mentally ill inmates, an issue that created the biggest sticking point during negotiations.

Over the past several years, IDOC has hired new staff and begun the process to improve care for mentally ill inmates. Progress reports filed with the court show the challenges the state has had in hiring and keeping trained staff.

Mihm commented that the work environment for prison workers will improve as mentally ill inmates receive better care.

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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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