PEORIA — A federal judge issued a final order Thursday directing the state Department of Corrections to remedy deficiencies in care to more than 12,000 mentally ill inmates.
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm rejected claims from prison officials that the responsibility for chronic staff shortages rests with Wexford Health Systems, the Pennsylvania vendor that provides health care and mental health treatment to the state's prison network.
"As this court noted previously, the defendants cannot shirk their constitutional obligations by delegating them to another," Mihm said in his 18-page ruling.
The order finalizes provisions of a permanent injunction issued by Mihm in October. The judge found the IDOC plan to correct widespread deficiencies fell short of what is needed to provide adequate treatment and care to inmates.
Plans to increase staffing are vague, said Mihm, and fail to provide concrete terms for improving shortcomings identified in the federal lawsuit filed by former inmate Ashoor Rasho in 2007. Since then, the class-action lawsuit has grown to more than 12,000 inmates also in need of care.
In his response to the final order, Harold Hirshman with Dentons US LLP, one of the lawyers for inmates, said: "Thank God. It's been a long time coming. This is critical to really having care being delivered to people who need it."
Alan Mills, another member of the inmates' legal team, said: "We're thrilled to see the court recognize this as an emergency situation. IDOC has failed to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care for far too long."
The judge's order that additional staff be hired within 90 days "should bring much-needed relief to prisoners who have been suffering," said Mills, director of Uptown People's Law Center.
Under a settlement agreement approved in 2015, IDOC was ordered to increase staffing, provide residential treatment beds and hospital level care, improve medication management for inmates and provide better monitoring and care for severely mentally ill inmates held in segregation.
The state has opened residential treatment beds in several prisons. A treatment center in Joliet and a hospital unit in Elgin also are accepting inmates in need of longer-term treatment.
The challenge to hire more psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to work in Illinois prisons remains an issue. Prison officials rely on Wexford to recruit and retain staff, but the firm has had a difficult time meeting the staffing levels and deadlines set by the court.
Lindsey Hess, IDOC spokesperson, said the department's legal team "is reviewing the order and will determine next steps. IDOC has made significant progress in improving the quality of our mental healthcare. We have hired hundreds of new staff and have invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours in staff training to meet the unique needs of our mentally ill population. We remain committed to these efforts."
The next steps in the litigation include a possible appeal by the state to the judge's order, a process that could take about nine months to resolve. If the state fails to correct the deficiencies, the court could appoint an outside agency to oversee improvements to mental health care and send the bill to the state.
The judge also ordered the payment of $1.9 million in legal fees to attorneys for inmates. The fees represent the second half of the legal fees owed to plaintiffs' lawyers under the settlement agreement and an earlier ruling by Mihm that the state had failed to comply with terms of the agreement.