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State Cites Low Vaccination Rate Among Prison Workers In Mental Health Litigation

Guards leave at shift change
Charles Rex Arbogast
Examples of the shrinking services cited by the lawyers include an end to mental health groups and unstructured out-of-cell time at Pontiac.

Isolated in solitary confinement as the pandemic swept through Illinois prisons, inmates diagnosed with mental illness are beyond the breaking point, setting fire to their cells and harming themselves after more than a year without adequate mental health care.

Lawyers for about 12,000 mentally ill inmates have asked a federal judge to order the Illinois Department of Corrections to end the facilitywide lockdowns put in place in March 2020 after COVID-19 spread across the globe. Penal institutions have been hit especially hard by the virus, with jails and prisons seeing high rates of infection among staff and detainees.

The IDOC disagrees with the inmates’ assessment of current conditions inside prisons.

In a response filed Monday, the state notes that just 13 prisoners – down from 20 when the injunction request was made April 26—have COVID-19 and 76 cases are reported among staff.

About 70% of the prison population has been vaccinated, but an apparent reluctance of 70% of staff to receive the vaccine leaves everyone inside the state facilities vulnerable to the virus, the state argues.

“Given that vaccinated staff are needed to supervise the out-of-cell activities at issue … these numbers require the Department to continue to consider the risks posed by COVID-19 as it considers allowing greater movement and group activities within its facilities,” said lawyers for the state.

In a March 25, 2020, letter, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office put attorneys for inmates on notice that IDOC operations, including mental health care mandated in a 2017 settlement agreement in federal lawsuit, would be impacted by COVID-19 and the state’s efforts to limits its potential spread. Programming and out-of-cell time for inmates were specifically mentioned.

The state anticipated that “backlogs will increase” for mental health care. Evaluations, treatment plans and psychiatric appointments would continue, said the letter.

Not a 'magic wand'

The months-long confinement violates inmates’ rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the filing by inmates in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois seeking a preliminary injunction top end the practice.

The state’s argument that the pandemic represents a circumstance beyond its control, known in legal terms as force majeure, that precludes the IDOC from following the settlement agreement, is no longer valid, according to inmate lawyers with Dentons US, Uptown People’s Law Center and Equip for Equality.

COVID-19 “is not a magic wand that erases legal obligations imposed by either the constitution or by contract,” said the petition. The settlement followed a ten-year legal battle between the IDOC and inmates diagnosed with a mental illness, many of them seriously affected by their disorders.

The harmful lockdowns have lasted “far longer than can be justified by the COVID-19 pandemic,” lawyers for prisoners contend.

Residential treatment centers (RTUs) at the Dixon, Pontiac and Logan correctional centers and the Joliet Treatment Center were meeting minimum requirements before the pandemic, both sides agree. “But all the progress that IDOC had made towards providing sufficient out-of-cell time in its RTUs came to a halt on March 25, 2020,” inmates’ lawyers argue.

Examples of the shrinking services cited by the lawyers include an end to mental health groups and unstructured out-of-cell time at Pontiac. Schedules at Joliet and Dixon left inmates inside their cells more than 23 hours a day, except for short breaks for showers and phone access.

Last fall, two inmates at the Joliet facility set fire to their cells, with one inmate telling staff “that he had reached his breaking point, the walls were closing in on him, and he needed to get out of the cell urgently,” according to concerns listed in the inmates’ filing.

“While this deterioration often happens silently within the confines of their cells, the predictable consequences include increased levels of self-harm and behavioral acting out that impacts operations in highly visible ways – ambulances coming and going, fires that must be extinguished, and all the repercussions from behavior against staff,” inmates lawyers argued.

In its 137-page response, the state details a years’ worth of communications exchanged between the two sides on out-of-cell time for mentally ill prisoners. The newest court demand is unnecessary, the state contends, because the IDOC was actively addressing the lockdown concerns well before the litigation was filed. Out-of-cell time has been restored to patents in the four RTUs, according to the state.

“The bottom line is that in the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19, the Department redoubled its efforts to improving its delivery of mental health care, not just at individual facilities, but across the entire system,” the state argued.

The inmates’ petition outlines several possible solutions to improve mental health treatment. Schedule changes to allow mental health groups to use dining halls, classrooms and other areas currently empty for long stretches and installation of plexiglass to ensure separation between inmates and counselors were among the suggestions.

The petition will be considered by Judge Michael Mihm, who previously ordered a major overhaul of the state’s mental health care in the prison system.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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