PEORIA — A shortage of psychiatrists and other trained staff has hindered the state's efforts to comply with a federal injunction mandating improvements to the care provided to about 12,000 mentally ill inmates.
That assessment was included in a report filed this week in U.S. District Court in Peoria by Dr. Pablo Stewart, the court-appointed monitor who recently completed his third annual report of the state's mental health system. Stewart's team visited 19 adult prisons for the review of the state's compliance with a 2016 settlement agreement in a 2007 lawsuit filed on behalf of mentally ill offenders.
The report comes a month after U.S. District Court Judge Micheal Mihm issued a permanent injunction confirming his previous order that the state address serious deficiencies in mental health care.
Mihm noted the state has made significant progress toward "an entirely new mental health system," including investing $45 million to build and improve facilities.
But the judge and Stewart remain critical of the state's lack of progress in hiring staff. The state may not delegate its staffing responsibility to Wexford Health Sources, the firm hired to provide inmates health care, said Mihm.
In his recent order giving the state 90 days to complete hiring of a statewide mental health staff of 450 workers, Mihm said he "remains concerned with the overall lack of a sense of urgency" by IDOC to address shortcomings in mental health care.
Attorneys for inmates estimate the state lacks 165 workers to meet an April 2019 IDOC staffing plan.
Harold Hirshman, one of the lawyers for inmates, said, "since the court's order has not been stayed, the department is bound to hire and hire soon."
In its report, the state contends it is short about 65 workers, after 22 staff who have been hired but haven't started are included in the staffing totals.
In a statement Thursday, IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said "the Illinois Department of Corrections remains focused on our goal to ensure that mentally ill men and women receive the treatment that is essential to their well being, rehabilitation and re-entry into society. We continue to make adjustments in our day-to-day operations that balance safety, security, and the needs of our mentally ill population. It is important to point out that in the latest monitor’s report, the department was found to be partially compliant or fully compliant in many areas."
According to Hirshman, the two sides are involved in negotiations as part of the state's appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit to boost staffing promptly at five facilities.
Stewart found the state to be in substantial compliance with 11 areas, but blames staffing for unresolved infractions.
"A major problem that is preventing IDOC from being substantially compliant with the settlement agreement is staffing," Stewart concluded.
The shortage of psychiatrists is an issue in Pontiac and Dixon and a women's prison in Lincoln where about half the number of doctors are employed, said the report.
"It appears, at minimum 88 people needed a higher level of care and did not receive it, and the number potentially approaches 500," according to the report.
Delays in crisis care for inmates at imminent risk suicide have not been sufficiently addressed, said Stewart, noting four prison suicides during the past year. The policy of having custody staff handle referrals to the crisis team is "a vexing problem," said Stewart.
Tours by lawyers of five facilities shows inmates "receive far too little mental health treatment, and what is provided is poor in quality including serious medication mismanagement. Unfortunately these visits confirm that little progress is being made," Hirshman said in the court filing.