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PEORIA — Attorneys for the state and 11,000 mentally ill inmates have returned to the negotiating table in a federal lawsuit calling for a major overhaul of the mental health system in Illinois prisons.

A trial scheduled to begin Jan. 5 in U.S. District Court was cancelled Thursday after lawyers told Judge Michael Mihm that they were resuming settlement talks that broke off in July.

The lawsuit filed in 2007 by Rasho Ashoor, a Pontiac Correctional Center inmate, grew to include all inmates diagnosed with a mental illness after Mihm approved class action status. 

The two sides were close to finalizing a consent decree that required hiring several hundred staff and construction of four residential treatment units. Funding of $29 million for construction and $62 million in staffing and operational costs will be needed to complete the upgrades both sides agree are necessary, according to state estimates. 

The inability of the state to fund the massive expenditures was behind the delay in reaching an agreement. That issue is expected to be resolved before the proposed agreement is filed next week, said Alan Mills of the Uptown People's Law Center, one of the lawyers for inmates.

"We had an agreement with the state last year as to what needed to be done. The hard part was figuring out how it would be done. We now have an agreement on how it will be done," said Mills.

Left unresolved was a provision for hospital-level care for about 50 seriously mentally ill inmates held in segregation. The state had managed to secure 10 inpatient beds at its Chester Mental Health Center but efforts to find more beds in private and public facilities were unsuccessful, according to DOC.

The state maintains that improvements have been made at some of its facilities. A report this year from John Howard Association noted that staffing to care for more than 580 mentally ill prisoners has significantly improved since 2013.

The prison monitoring group said 44 seriously mentally ill inmates received a total of 74.6 years in reduced segregation time as a result of disciplinary reviews ordered by the federal lawsuit.

In his August ruling setting a trial date, Mihm identified hospital-level care and the use of segregation as priority issues.

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Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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