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Sunday, June 10, 2018 11:22 am

Report: Guards abusing mentally ill in state prisons

Expert calls for investigation

There is credible evidence of guards physically abusing mentally ill inmates at Pontiac Correctional Center, according to a psychiatrist appointed by a federal court to monitor treatment of mentally ill prisoners by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Dr. Pablo Stewart found “persistent evidence of physical abuse” at Pontiac, according to a report by the psychiatrist filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Peoria as part of lawsuit filed against IDOC. While he says that he never has personally witnessed abuse, Stewart writes that evidence of at least one assault is supported by medical records and corroborated by mental health staff. Stewart in his report also writes that he has recently been given additional information regarding “the culture of abuse that exists at Pontiac,” and he also says that he has heard allegations of guards intimidating mental health workers at both Pontiac and Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln.

An IDOC spokeswoman did not respond to phone messages and an email inquiry sent Saturday. Stewart, whose services were retained to ensure compliance with an agreement between inmates and the state to settle a lawsuit, urged that the department conduct an investigation and share the results with his monitoring team. Stewart’s team already has determined that care for mentally ill inmates is so poor as to be unconstitutional, and a federal court judge has agreed, recently ruling that the state has been “deliberately indifferent” to the needs of thousands of mentally ill prisoners.

"The monitoring team has met hundreds of dedicated mental health staff, custody staff and administrators during the first two years of the settlement agreement,” Stewart wrote in his report that also says the state hasn’t lived up to most parts of the settlement, particularly with regard to providing psychiatrists and other mental health caregivers to inmates. “It is a shame that the department allows the hard work and dedication of these staff to be sullied by a minority of individuals who have no business working in corrections."

Stewart’s report includes no details on alleged abuse, but dozens of inmates have written to the federal court, detailing allegations that include guards applying pepper spray to the faces of inmates who were already handcuffed and shackled, a guard who reportedly kneed a shackled-and-cuffed inmate in the face and a guard who stepped on a walking inmate’s shoe, causing the prisoner to fall into a hole in the ground that was part of a construction site. In addition to physical abuse, inmates say in letters to the court that they have been sexually assaulted by guards and threatened. Complaints to administrators, inmates say, have done little good. In an April letter to the court, Darren D. Evans, a Pontiac inmate, writes that a grievance he filed after he was beaten in 2017 was still pending more than 11 months after the fact.

Inmates in letters to the court say that their accusations can be proven with footage from cameras installed in institutions and carried by teams assigned to extract uncooperative inmates from cells. “There are cameras all over the place,” says Alan Mills, a Chicago-based lawyer for inmates.

Mills says he believes that instances of abuse may have declined recently after a correctional commander named by several Pontiac inmates as a problem officer was transferred. He says he doesn’t know the reason for the transfer, but problems remain. “Yes, they’ve gotten better, but use of force has by no means stopped,” Mills says.

More than two years after the state settled the case, mentally ill inmates face serious problems aside from physical abuse, Stewart writes in a second annual report that repeats concerns documented in previous reports to the court. While the state has reached “substantial compliance” on 15 of 36 issues for which deadlines for improvement were set, serious -- and some costly – shortfalls remain. Mentally ill inmates who’ve been in special units for more than 60 days still aren’t getting eight hours a week outside their cells. The deadline was August, 2016, and the agreement calls for an expansion to 16 hours a week by May of next year. Suicide prevention measures that were supposed to be in place in May, 2017, still aren’t present, according to Stewart’s report, and the state has missed deadlines to supply additional beds.

Staffing is inadequate, even in prisons where staffing levels called for in the 2016 settlement agreement have been met, Stewart writes. “The only chance the department has of ever meeting the requirements of the settlement agreement is to significantly augment the staffing levels called for in the approved remedial plan and then fully staff all facilities,” the doctor writes. As of April 20, there were more than five vacant positions for psychiatrists at Dixon Correctional Center, and more than four vacant jobs for psychiatrists at Logan Correctional System, Pontiac Correctional Center and Joliet Correctional Center, Stewart found. More than 11 jobs for registered nurses were open at Joliet, Stewart determined, and there were also vacancies for psychologists and other mental health workers at several prisons.

In at least one area, Stewart questions the veracity of the state, pointing to an IDOC quarterly report produced last month asserting that all mental health evaluations had been completed on time. “(N)othing could be further from the truth,” Stewart writes. There were, in fact, 495 past-due evaluations ranging from one to 60 days late when the state in its report said that there were none, according to Stewart’s report. As of May 18, he wrote, more than 1,200 visits with psychiatrists for a range of issues were past due.

Stewart’s report filed Friday comes after a May 26 decision from U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm, who said that that mentally ill inmates are suffering “irreparable harm” and that a state of emergency exists within the state’s prisons, where an estimated 12,000 mentally ill inmates are held. The ruling came after testimony showing that mentally ill inmates are sometimes held in restraints for prolonged periods and kept in isolation cells with little or no treatment. Mihm  has signaled that an injunction is coming; the state has signaled that it will appeal.

Under terms of the settlement agreement with the state, attorneys for inmates stand to benefit financially from the state’s failures. Half of the fees due lawyers for the prisoners are contingent on the state living up to the settlement. Now that a judge has said that the state didn’t live up to promises, Mills says that he and other lawyers for inmates stand to collect $1.9 million from the state in addition to an equal amount that the state already has paid to the inmates’ legal team. Mills makes no apologies: If the state had spent money on fixing problems, he says, it would owe nothing to attorneys.

“We gave up our money in hopes that would stop the suffering,” Mills says. “We more than earned our money.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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