PEORIA — The correspondence is a window into the depths of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons.
Few days pass without letters being delivered to U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm in Peoria from one or more of the 1,105 inmates held in segregation. Most of the mail deals with Mihm’s 2016 order directing the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) to complete a major overhaul of mental health care for more than 12,000 inmates on the agency’s mental health caseload.
During court proceedings in the lawsuit filed in 2007, Mihm indicated he reads every letter he receives. After reading them, many covering multiple, handwritten pages, Mihm makes a docket entry addressing the inmate’s concerns.
The letters contain widespread allegations of abuse by correctional officers and failures by IDOC to meet the standards for mental health care outlined in a May 2016 agreement in the federal lawsuit.
In a recent letter, Pontiac inmate Gerald Jones accuses staff of knowingly placing mentally ill inmates into an exercise yard with violent gang members. The practice that has resulted in injuries to mentally ill prisoners started in September after Mihm issued a preliminary injunction forcing IDOC to comply with the court order that included increased time outside segregation, according to the letter.
Jones, who is serving a life sentence for murder, also alleges that certain officers have been overheard talking about the potential fights and making statements about how they are “looking forward to seeing these fights and who wins.” Bets are sometimes placed by staff on which inmates will be willing to come into the yard for what could be a dangerous encounter, Jones states in his letter.
Jones’ complaint, like many others received by Mihm, was referred to Dr. Pablo Stewart, the court-appointed monitor for the federal lawsuit. The doctor adds the inmate concerns to his list of issues to be addressed during prison visits.
The team of attorneys for inmates also follows up on the letters, said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, one of the legal firms representing mentally ill prisoners.
“In general, the complaints are valid. The class action is not designed to solve these individual issues. Rather, the hope is that by fixing the systemic problems, we will eliminate most of these individual issues," said Mills.
In cases where inmates may face an immediate danger, IDOC has responded after the issue was brought to its attention by counsel for inmates, said Mills.
Information in the letters also is used to support petitions from lawyers for inmates asking that the terms of the settlement agreement be enforced. Several inmates have testified about their experiences at hearings in federal court.
Mihm referred at least two letters he received in October to Pontiac Warden Teri Kennedy for investigation. Both letters dealt with alleged retaliation by staff of inmates who complained about their mental health treatment.
A recent letter alleging sexual harassment during unsupervised strip searches of an inmate also was referred to the warden.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 494, the union that represents correctional officers at Pontiac, could not be reached for comment on the allegations.
IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess said, "When a complaint is received by a warden, it is reviewed and appropriate action is taken. Each case is handled on an individual basis."
Mihm referred an Oct. 2 letter to Menard Correctional Center Warden Jacqueline Lashbrook.
In his six-page letter, Menard inmate Anthony S. White detailed five suicide attempts he made between Aug. 31 and Sept. 10. Cuts that required hospital trips for stitches and drug overdoses were among the methods used by White in his attempts to die while on crisis watch, according to the letter.
White, who is serving 30 years for attacking a guard and attempting to escape from the Pontiac prison after he took a guard's uniform, tried to hang himself Sept. 7 with a strip of cloth removed from a jumpsuit.
"I cut three gashes in my left forearm, overdosed on 31 pills and tied a ripped jumpsuit leg around my neck," stated White's letter.
In its Nov. 13 proposal to address the permanent injunction, IDOC asked the judge to adopt its previous order without any new requirements or deadlines. Added mandates could interfere with prison operations and go beyond the actions needed to achieve a constitutional level of care, the state argued.
In their proposal for inmates held on crisis watch and segregation, IDOC recommends inmates be offered a narrow range of care "to the extent feasible allowing for appropriate operational discretion and flexibility."
Lawyers for inmates are asking Mihm to impose specific deadlines for compliance with the court order. Limits would be placed on the time mentally ill prisoners can be held in solitary confinement without follow-up care. The state would have a year to hire sufficient mental health staff.
A plan that spells out how the state will implement a plan should be submitted within 45 days of the judge's final order, according to the inmates' filing.