Isolated in isolation as the pandemic swept through Illinois prisons, inmates diagnosed with mental illness are beyond the breaking point, setting fire to their cells and being damaged after more than a year without having proper mental care.
Lawyers for nearly 12,000 mentally ill inmates have asked a federal judge to order the Illinois Department of Corrections to end the facility-wide closures established in March 2020 after COVID-19 was extended to all the world. Criminal institutions have been particularly affected by the virus, as prisons and prisons have recorded high rates of infection among staff and detainees.
IDOC does not agree with the inmates’ assessment of current conditions in prisons.
In a response filed Monday, the state notes that only 13 inmates (less than 20 when the request for an injunction was filed on April 26) have COVID-19 and 76 cases are reported among staff.
Approximately 70% of the inmate population has been vaccinated, but an apparent reluctance of 70% of staff to receive the vaccine leaves everyone at state facilities vulnerable to the virus, according to the state.
“Given that vaccinated personnel are needed to monitor activities outside the cells in question … these figures require the Department to continue to consider the risks posed by COVID-19, as it considers allowing greater movement and activities groups at their facilities, ”he said. state attorneys.
In a letter dated March 25, 2020, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office warned inmates’ attorneys that IDOC’s operations, including mandatory mental health care in a 2017 settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit , would be affected by COVID-19 and the state’s efforts to limit its potential spread. Mention was made specifically of programming and time out of the cell for inmates.
The state predicted that “delays will increase” for mental health care. Assessments, treatment plans, and psychiatric appointments would continue, the letter said.
It’s not a “magic wand”
The month-long closure violates inmates’ rights under the U.S. Constitution and the American Disability Act, according to the petition filed by inmates in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois He called for a preliminary injunction to end the practice.
The state’s argument that the pandemic represents a circumstance beyond its control, known in legal terms as force majeure, which prevents IDOC from pursuing the liquidation agreement is no longer valid, according to lawyers inmates of Dentons US, Uptown People’s Law Center and Team for Equality.
COVID-19 “is not a magic wand that erases the legal obligations imposed by the constitution or by contract,” the petition said. The agreement followed a ten-year legal battle between IDOC and inmates diagnosed with a mental illness, many of them severely affected by their disorders.
Harmful closures have lasted “much longer than the COVID-19 pandemic can justify,” inmate lawyers argue.
The residential treatment centers (RTUs) at Dixon, Pontiac and Logan Correctional Centers and the Joliet Treatment Center met the minimum requirements before the pandemic, according to both parties. “But all the progress that IDOC had made to provide sufficient time out of the cell to its RTUs was halted on March 25, 2020,” the inmates ’lawyers argue.
Some examples of the reduction services cited by lawyers include the end of mental health groups and unstructured out-of-cell time at Pontiac. Joliet and Dixon’s schedules left inmates in their cells more than 23 hours a day, except for brief breaks for showers and telephone access.
Last fall, two inmates at Joliet’s facility set fire to his cells, and one inmate told staff “that he had reached his breaking point, that the walls were closing in on him and that he had to get out of the cell urgently, ”he said. to the concerns contained in the presentation of the prisoners.
“While this deterioration often occurs silently within the confines of their cells, the foreseeable consequences include increased levels of self-harm and behavioral actions that affect operations in highly visible ways: ambulances coming and going, fires to be extinguished and repercussions of anti-personnel behavior, “the inmates’ lawyers argued.
In its 137-page response, the state details the communications exchanged between the two parties regarding time out of the cell for mentally ill prisoners. The latest lawsuit is unnecessary, according to the state, because IDOC was actively addressing the blocking concerns before the litigation was filed. Depending on the state, time out of the cell has been restored to the patents of the four RTUs.
“The bottom line is that, in the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19, the Department has redoubled its efforts to improve the delivery of mental health care, not only to individual facilities, but to the entire system,” he said. argue the state.
The inmates ’request describes several possible solutions to improve mental health treatment. Change schedules so that mental health groups can use canteens, classrooms and other currently empty areas for long stretches and the installation of plexiglass to ensure separation between inmates and counselors.
The petition will be examined by Judge Michael Mihm, who previously ordered a major overhaul of the state’s mental health care in the prison system.