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After Nine-Year Battle, Illinois Will Provide 11,000 Prisoners With Mental Health Care

A lone inmate in Division 2 Dorm 2 of the Cook County Jail, where male prisoners with mental disorders bunk, sits arms folded on his bunk in Chicago. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST-FILE
A lone inmate in Division 2 Dorm 2 of the Cook County Jail, where male prisoners with mental disorders bunk, sits arms folded on his bunk in Chicago. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST-FILE

Illinois, a state that gutted mental health funding by 31.7 percent between 2009 and 2012, will soon guarantee specialized mental health services for 11,000 prisoners.

Under the terms of a final settlement recently approved by a federal judge, Illinois will spend $40 million on brand new mental health facilities at four state prisons, including one youth facility. Another $40 million will be spent on hiring 300 clinical staff and 400 security staff. With the additional funding and resources, thousands of prisoners with severe mental illness will receive “long-term and acute care.”

The judge’s decision marks the end of a class action lawsuit that was filed nearly a decade ago by incarcerated plaintiffs with “serious mental illnesses,” including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and psychosis.

According to the lawsuit, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) officials routinely conducted “arbitrary, haphazard” intake screenings and underdiagnosed prisoners so they wouldn’t have to provide treatment. Prisoners who suffered from mental illness were thrown in solitary confinement, harassed by staff, and sprayed with chemicals. When they lashed out because of their illnesses, prisoners were sent to solitary confinement for extended periods of time and had years added to their sentences.

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The lucky few who did receive medical attention had to talk to health care providers through cell doors instead of conversing with them in private settings. They were usually prescribed pills without a monitor or the opportunity to regularly consult a mental health professional. Multiple prisoners had their medication cut off over time. And people on suicide watch were frequently abandoned and abused.

What Happened When An Illinois County Rehabilitated Mentally Ill Offenders Through TreatmentThe last 27 years of Luvell Pierre Gipson’s life have been peppered with stints in prison, bouts with bipolar disorder…thinkprogress.orgFrom 2009 to 2012, Illinois slashed more mental health services than all but three states. With the closure of psychiatric hospitals and little funding for facilities that remained open, people struggling with mental illness had little to no access to life-saving care — and wound up behind bars as a result.

The influx of prisoners with mental illness, paired with inadequate treatment behind bars, created a revolving door through which people were imprisoned, released, and imprisoned again for their mental illness.

“While some mentally ill individuals are charged with violent offenses, the majority are charged with crimes seemingly committed to survive, including retail theft, trespassing, prostitution and drug possession,” Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart testified in 2014. While the problems aren’t limited to one part of the state, Cook County is home to the biggest jail in the country — one that’s notorious for locking up 3,500 mentally ill people, daily.

The settlement is just one major victory for prisoners and criminal justice advocates across Illinois. Over the past few years, lawmakers have worked to undo the damage caused by the cuts to mental health services.

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In 2015, a clinical psychologist was hired on as Cook County Jail’s executive director, a move that signaled the prioritization of mental health care at the facility. The county also opened a rehabilitation center to divert mentally ill offenders away from jail and into a program that provides counseling, job training, and education.