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Illinois Prisoners' Health Care Still Unconstitutional

The latest report on health care in Illinois state prisons (PDF) was released to the public earlier this month. This report was created by Dr. John Raba, an independent, court-appointed monitor, as a result of the class action lawsuit Lippert v. Jeffreys, brought by ACLU of Illinois, Uptown People's Law Center, and Dentons. This lawsuit alleged that the health care provided to prisoners in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is unconstitutional, and was settled in January 2019.

Five reports by independent experts have now been submitted to the federal court, each one finding serious defects in the health care Illinois provides to the people it imprisons. The latest report notes very little has changed since IDOC entered into an agreement to improve two years ago. The federal monitor suggests that the crisis needs the governor's personal attention, a call shared by the lawyers for the prisoners.

The health care system in IDOC employs 31 physicians to care for more than 30,000 people. In the chart review of deaths in 2020, the monitor found patients whose needs for care exceeded the prisons' capabilities, particularly skilled geriatric and hospice care. In this report, the court monitor continues to ask, "Why are these men and women incarcerated when they are so overtly and obviously no longer a danger to society?"

The report found that the COVID-19 pandemic "exposed critical weaknesses" in IDOC's health program. While the monitor acknowledges the difficulties the pandemic presented, he says "even before the pandemic started the IDOC had not created an implementation plan satisfactory to the requirements of the [settlement] . . . the IDOC lacks the internal resources to complete this task . . . this requirement is a year-and-a-half overdue."

Other findings from the monitor's report include:

  • Many patient deaths related to untreated or poorly-treated diseases;
  • "[P]atients who should have been hospitalized rather than admitted to the [prison] infirmary;"
  • "[P]hysicians who practice in an unsafe and clinically inappropriate manner" and a "lack of quality medical leadership at the facility level;"
  • Numerous medication errors, including giving the wrong medication, and "continuing to administer medication that has been changed or discontinued;"
  • "[I]nsufficient physician staff," and "nurse staffing deficiencies, infection control staffing deficiencies;"
  • "IDOC does not have a strategy for how to manage its health program;"
  • Patients' deaths did not have death reviews, rather "a death summary which is mostly a death announcement with . . . no critical analysis and no recommendations for improvement;"
  • Numerous "structural and environmental deficiencies [that] have the potential to negatively impact the health of the [prisoner] population and the staff," including crumbling walls and ceilings, missing floor tiles, broken toilets and sinks, standing water, peeling paint, and much more.

"While the report is written in the unemotional clinical language of health professionals," Uptown People's Law Firm Executive Director Alan Mills says, "I have personally met with people suffering from this medical neglect. Being in prison is bad. Being seriously ill in prison, forced to rely on this broken system to protect your health, is terrifying. Though Illinois abolished the death penalty, we have a de facto, slow-motion death penalty inside our prisons, because the health care is so bad that it actually kills people. The people of Illinois must demand better."

Camille Bennett, director of the corrections reform project at the ACLU of Illinois, says that "More than two years after the State promised to address the problems with health care in Illinois' prisons, this report is disappointing. COVID-19 exposed the incredible fragility and inefficacy of IDOC's healthcare system, which remains understaffed, underfunded and undertrained, and was completely unequipped to handle a serious outbreak of infectious disease, let alone a global pandemic. People suffered and died as a result. It is time for the State to step up and increase the resources for this system and further dramatically reduce the population so the system can finally move towards treating people in custody with a minimum degree of humanity."

Says Harold Hirschman of Dentons: "We have yet another expert report on the state of healthcare in IDOC, and they all tell the same story: the health care that is provided routinely kills people. This report describes a system which is no better than it has ever been, despite the state signing a federal court agreement to make changes. Wexford, the IDOC's for-profit healthcare vendor, whose care has been criticized by every expert who has evaluated it, remains the sole care provider. It is time for Governor Pritzker to make IDOC live up to its contractual and Constitutional obligations."



* May 2017: Federal Court Certifies Lawsuit Charging Unconstitutional Illinois Prison Healthcare.

* May 2018: Mentally Ill Prisoners Win Injunction; Judge Declares IDOC's Failure To Provide Mental Health Care An "Emergency Situation."

* October 2018: Judge: "Deliberate Indifference" Of IDOC Mental Health Care Requires Federal Oversight.

* December 2018: Federal Judge To IDOC: Get Your Unconstitutional Shit Together.

* January 2019: Overhauling Illinois' Unconstitutional Prisons.


Comments welcome.


Posted on March 31, 2021

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