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IDOC Adopts New 'Restrictive Housing' Rules

Prison bars
The state operates two dozen facilities with about 32,000 prisoners.

The Illinois Department of Corrections had adopted its first standardized policy for inmates held in segregation, with a focus on limiting the number of prisoners removed from general population for years at a time.

In a memo sent to IDOC staff, state prison officials said the new policy, which now refers to segregation as “restrictive housing,” is based on federal Department of Justice guidelines and American Correctional Association standards.

“The Illinois Department of Corrections has never had a standardized RH policy; historically, each facility was instructed to draft their own Institutional Policy from Department Rule 504. In essence we had 27 different ways in which facilities were implementing the use of RH,” said the staff memo.

Currently, 807 of the state’s 30,351 prisoners are in restrictive housing, according to IDOC.   

Agency officials noted in the directive to staff that the widespread use of segregation--where inmates are typically locked up for up to 23 hours a day--has been questioned by courts, policymakers, advocacy groups and the media.

IDOC spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said Wednesday “the changes reflected in the department’s new administrative directive benefits all individuals in restrictive housing, particularly those with mental illness. Each person placed in restrictive housing is promptly examined by a Qualified Mental Health Professional and receives programming based on their mental health status and needs. The policy requires all men and women in custody receive out-of-cell time and access to programs, services and recreation.”

Restricted housing will be limited to no more than 28 days, with longer terms possible for inmates who commit violent assaults, arson and drug crimes while incarcerated.

Much of the policy, finalized Nov. 1, focuses on the needs of the state’s 12,000 mentally ill inmates.

Alan Mills, a lawyer who represents inmates’ claims in the Ashoor Rasho lawsuit that alleges IDOC failed to provide adequate mental health treatment, said “it is still far too soon to conclude that, as implemented, the new policy will result in a meaningful change.”

In October, the inmates’ legal team in the lawsuit filed a request in U.S District Court for the Central District of Illinois, seeking $15 million in damages from the state for its alleged failure to comply with a 2018 court mandate to overhaul prison mental health care. The care of mentally ill prisoners in segregation was one of five areas a federal judge cited in the mandate for improvement.

Under the new IDOC rules, staff are required to provide prompt assessments of mentally ill inmates who are placed in restrictive housing. Suicide attempts, self-inflicted injuries and other behaviors related to a mental illness will not be subject to punishment under the new rules.   

In a July report by a court-appointed monitor, 933 inmate placements in segregation were reviewed at nine prisons and found to be lacking in their compliance with the court order.

“Prompt assessments after placement into segregation are only occurring at a rate of 73%. Treatment plan reviews and updates were only occurring at a rate of 63.5%. Segregation rounds were noted to occur at a rate of 93.6%,” Dr. Pablo Stewart noted in his report to the court.

At the Pontiac, Menard and Western correctional centers, treatment planning was not completed for inmates in segregation, according to Stewart’s report. Staff shortages--a problem often cited by IDOC for lack of compliance--caused the problem, prison officials told Stewart.

According to Mills, the new policy fails to ensure that people whose misconduct is linked to their illness will receive mental health treatment instead of time in segregation. The rules also allow staff who are not mental health professionals to monitor inmates whose conditions may deteriorate in segregation, a provision contrary to the federal mandate, said Mills.

Under the new plan, inmates who complete programs while in segregation can earn their way out of restrictive housing. But there are no requirements that mentally ill inmates receive support services to help them meet those requirements, said Mills.

“This means that it remains likely that people with a serious mental illness will continuously fail to meet the plan goals, and will continue the cycle of isolation and decompensation, which Rasho tried to break, and will thus continue to spend month after month after month in segregation,” said Mills.

New hires and current staff at IDOC will receive training on the new rules. The state plans to track data on future placements, including who is being sent to restrictive housing, for how long and the reasons for the placement. Trends will be analyzed “so that we can begin to deter the root cause of the behavior that leads to the RH placement,” said the memo.

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