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Thursday, July 2, 2009 03:21 pm

Private hell

Mentally ill Tamms inmate dies in solitary confinement

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Robert Foor

On June 8, Robert Foor filed a grievance with the Illinois Department of Corrections seeking a transfer out of Tamms Correctional Center and into a mental health prison, plus proper treatment and medication. Last week, on June 23, Foor was found unresponsive in his cell, and within hours was pronounced dead at Union County Hospital. He was 33 years old, and had been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.

Darryl W. Rendleman, the Union County coroner in charge of investigating Foor’s death, says preliminary autopsy results reveal no bruising or obvious cause.

Foor was incarcerated in 1994 for residential burglary. Though he had no record of violent crime in the free world, in prison he accumulated three convictions for aggravated battery: one against a fellow inmate, and two against peace officers. His latest conviction was in 2000. He was scheduled to be paroled in October 2012.

Foor’s death has reignited calls for prison reform from Tamms Year Ten, a nonprofit organization that has for 18 months been asking IDOC to address the mental health needs of Tamms inmates, and to develop objective criteria that would allow Tamms inmates to “step down” from this all-solitary-segregation “supermax” prison [see “Tougher than Guantanamo,” June 18].

IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp says Foor was housed in Tamms’ F-1 wing rather than J-pod, the special treatment unit for seriously mentally ill inmates. However, Jean Maclean Snyder, a Chicago attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of a few mentally ill Tamms inmates in 1999, says IDOC has long been aware of Foor’s mental illness, according to medical records she obtained years ago.

“He had been in Menard [Correctional Center] psychiatric unit two times before he was transferred to Tamms. His diagnosis was one of these that’s kind of trivial. It would not meet the department’s criteria for serious mental illness. However, it was serious enough that IDOC kept treating him,” she says.

In his June 8 grievance, Foor complained that Tamms had withheld medications as well as therapy since March 9, after he filed a grievance against IDOC’s contracted psychiatrist. Januari Smith, IDOC communications manager, said she could not comment on Foor’s mental health or treatment due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

However, Foor’s mother, Deb Elshoff, says Tamms warden Yolande Johnson told her on the phone that Foor was not receiving any medications at the time of his death. “To this day, I still don’t know why Bobby died,” Elshoff says.

Nancy Meyer, a Chicago-area mental health professional who had corresponded with Foor for several years, says Foor told her that he had been mentally ill all his life, and that his illness came through in his letters. She sent some of his writings to IDOC officials in hopes of persuading them to transfer Foor. In 2006, he was sent to Dixon Correctional Center for testing, but was returned to Tamms.

Foor and Meyer corresponded about twice a week, and Meyer, who considered Foor to be like a brother, says she saw a “sweet” side of a troubled man. “He would always send me cards, for Mothers Day, my birthday, any kind of occasion. He would tell me to go plant a rose bush and pretend like it was from him,” she says.

Elshoff also describes her son as having a “good heart,” recalling the time when he was working at a telemarketing company and spent his entire paycheck on her 40th birthday celebration, then had to ask her for money to buy cigarettes.

“That was Bobby. He didn’t think; he would just do things on impulse,” Elshoff says. “He had dimples and blue eyes and the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen. He was good natured, but if you made him mad, he had a temper on him.”

In the supermax, Foor became so violent that he was sent to the security wing three times, according to his own grievance. He also became more mentally ill, mutilating himself by cutting and biting, and attempting to hang himself.

At her son’s request, Elshoff had never visited him in Tamms. She had last visited him in 2006, during his brief time at Dixon. “When I seen him in Dixon, I seen it on his arms, where he was cutting his arms,” Elshoff says.

She’s awaiting the final results of his autopsy, but holds no hope that it will answer her questions. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find the truth,” she says.

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