The inmate was mumbling. Shaking. Clearly in a psychotic state and whispering about a black hole.
The black hole had already demanded, and received, his blood once, the inmate told Dr. Pablo Stewart, a psychiatrist who visited Pontiac Correctional Center last fall to determine whether the state was abiding by a settlement agreement crafted to improve care for mentally ill inmates. Now, the inmate told Stewart, the hole wanted more blood. Stewart says that he turned from court-appointed monitor to clinician, attempting convince the inmate that the black hole wasn’t real.
After a few minutes, the inmate was returned to his segregation cell, where mentally ill inmates who misbehave spend as many as 23 hours a day locked up alone, Stewart testified this week in U.S. District Court in Peoria. It could be worse. Inmates deemed seriously suicidal are sent to crisis cells where they are restrained to beds without mattresses, legs spread and shackled down, Stewart testified, their arms shackled and extended above their heads, as if stretched out on medieval torture racks.
“You get cramps and charley horses,” said Corrie Singleton, a Pontiac inmate who testified that he’s been so restrained seven or eight times for as long as 72 hours at a stretch since September. Once every two hours, guards loosen restraints, one limb at time, for eight minutes, Singleton said. He always picks his left arm. His right arm, Singleton explained, is dislocated, and so it is strapped down near his side instead of pinned down over his head, next to his left arm.
Testifying telephonically and fresh from a straitjacket, Singleton said Tuesday that he has been on suicide watch for six days after swallowing batteries. He had been allowed a shower and a chance to brush his teeth just once during that time, he testified in a flat voice, blinking little as he stared into the camera. He said he last had a one-on-one session with a mental health counselor in September. […]
Singleton is the face of a mental health disaster in Illinois prisons, according to attorneys for inmates who’ve been battling in court since 2007, attempting to force improvements. Inmates in 2015 agreed to abandon a consent decree, hoping that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s offer to settle the case without a decree would result in faster change. That, according to the plaintiffs, hasn’t happened, and so they’re back in court hoping for a judicial order to enforce the settlement agreement.
An inmate identified only as Tyler committed suicide in October after unsuccessful attempts in April and July that resulted in no significant change to his written treatment plans, which contained no mention that he had attempted to take his own life, according to Stewart’s testimony and court exhibits. Entire pages of the treatment plan form describing Tyler’s condition and what should be done to help him were left blank, and that’s typical, Stewart testified.
“This isn’t an outlier,” testified the doctor, who told the court that treatment plans routinely contain boilerplate language that doesn’t change from inmate to inmate.
Approximately 900 of the 1,100 inmates in segregation in state prisons are mentally ill, according to court records. Mental health professionals who check on mentally ill inmates must shout at them through small openings in cell doors that preclude inmates and those who are supposed to help them from seeing each other, Stewart testified. It’s a vicious cycle, with segregation cells making sick inmates even sicker, which prompts more misbehavior, which results in more segregation time. They cut themselves and smear their bodies with feces. The state last spring began giving mentally ill inmates more time out of segregation cells by shackling them to chairs in front of big-screen televisions that show movies, which Stewart acknowledged is progress.
The Illinois Department of Corrections has taken considerable steps to enhance the delivery of care for offenders who are on the mental health caseload. The Department remains focused on fully complying with the terms of the Rasho v Baldwin settlement agreement. It should be pointed out that, at a recent hearing, Dr. Melvin Hinton was called as an adverse witness. The vast majority of the questions he was asked required “Yes” or “No” answers. In other words, there were very few opportunities for him to explain the many accomplishments the Department has made in the 18 months since the Agreement was signed. It is important for the public to know the following:
· While recruiting qualified mental health professionals has been a challenge, the Department has added hundreds of new staff members since 2015 to address the mental health needs of its offenders.
· Department staff continues to receive ongoing training, including National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) training and Verbal Judo, which equips them with the knowledge to deescalate situations and meet the unique needs of its mentally ill population.
· The Department has reduced segregation time by 44% since 2015 and has drastically increased out of cell time for offenders who are housed in segregation.
· The Department has implemented additional programming for offenders who are on the mental health caseload.
· Currently, there are seriously mentally ill residents receiving residential treatment level services at Joliet Treatment Center and the residential treatment units at Logan and Dixon Correctional Centers.
· Additionally, the IDOC enlisted the services of an engineering firm to develop a state-of-the-art, 200 bed mental health and general medicine treatment unit for seriously mentally ill offenders.
The safety of our staff, the offenders in our custody, and the public are our top priority. The Department continues to make adjustments in its day to day operations that balance safety, security, and the needs of our mentally ill population. The Department remains committed to ensuring that mentally ill men and women receive the treatment that is essential to their wellbeing, rehabilitation and reentry into society.