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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 12:07 am

Mentally ill behind bars

Agreement would help mentally ill inmates

 

Tiffany Rusher doesn’t belong in prison, according to a lawyer for mentally ill inmates at the cusp of winning major reform from the state.

Locked up for aggravated sexual abuse of a minor, Rusher, 26, spends her days in a so-called crisis cell at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, under constant watch, says Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown Peoples Law Center in Chicago. First hospitalized after attempting suicide at 12, Rusher, due to suicide attempts, is allowed no property and gets by with a blanket but no clothing, Mills says. If she wants to read, a guard outside a glass wall holds up a book and turns pages when Rusher indicates, the lawyer says. She goes outside her cell three times a week for therapy sessions, he said.

Due for release in May, Rusher has been in her crisis cell for four months, according to Mills, who says that such cells should be used for hours, not days, weeks or months, as has been the practice in Illinois prisons .

“I believe schizophrenia is one of her many diagnoses,” says Mills, who represents mentally ill inmates in a federal class-action lawsuit now set for settlement. “She needs to be in a hospital. And the department (of corrections) does not disagree with me on that.”

So why is Rusher in prison?

“Because they don’t have a hospital,” Mills answers. “Nobody thinks this is good.”

The settlement that has received preliminary approval from a federal judge in Peoria would require the state to spend $40 million on new facilities and as much as $40 million per year on new employees to address the needs of mentally ill inmates, according to a recent report in the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Department of Corrections declined an interview request, but in a written statement, acting director John Baldwin acknowledged that change is needed. Besides increasing staff, the department is committed to improving training for staff, Baldwin said.

“Illinois prisons were not intended to be psychiatric hospitals but the reality is, they have become holding places for people who suffer from serious mental illness,” Baldwin said. “Our end goal is to get them stabilized and help them cope and adjust to their environment.”

Without admitting liability in the lawsuit, the department has begun construction on treatment units for the mentally ill at three prisons, including Logan, according to Baldwin’s prepared statement. Mills says that the department has also started hiring mental health treatment providers.

“It’s a move in the right direction as opposed to just standing pat,” says Mills.

Mills, a longtime critic of Illinois prisons, praises Baldwin, who was hired in August after he retired as head of Iowa prisons.

“He came to this agreement – I think he’s firmly committed to doing it,” Mills says. “If there’s a way to do it, I believe the administration will do it.”

The tentative settlement is subject to comment from inmates, who are scheduled to receive copies of the proposed agreement later this month, Mills said. Asked for a copy, a corrections department spokeswoman told a reporter to submit a formal request under the state Freedom of Information Act. Mills said that the proposed settlement can be “freely distributed” after Jan. 21, when inmates will be allowed copies.

According to court documents, the settlement requires the state to hire more mental health professionals, provide inmates with a mental health hospital and maintain more than 1,200 treatment beds. The department would be required to create and regularly review treatment plans for all mentally ill inmates. The department would also review cases to reduce segregation time for mentally ill prisoners and provide more time out of cells for mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement who now are allowed out of their cells for five hours a week. Under the settlement, mentally ill inmates in solitary would be allowed out of their cells for 20 hours each week. There is also a provision for an independent monitor who would report to the court to ensure that the state adheres to settlement terms.

The settlement is subject to the state appropriating sufficient money for the reforms. If the General Assembly balks, Mills said that litigation in the lawsuit filed in 2007 would continue.

There are an estimated 11,000 mentally ill inmates doing time in Illinois prisons, Mills said. And Rusher’s case at Logan is not as bad as it gets, he said.

“According to the experts who have reviewed this, Illinois has, if not the very worst, among the very worst, systems for dealing with mentally ill prisoners in the country,” Mills said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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