IDOC fails to meet requirements in three class action settlements impacting people with medical needs and disabilities

A federal court judge issued an order of contempt against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) after the Department repeatedly ignored court orders and failed to take appropriate steps to improve health care in the State’s prison system. 
Specifically, the court acted after repeated failures by IDOC since 2018 to develop a specific, detailed plan needed to implement and remedy problems in the prison health care system that court experts identified multiple times.
“IDOC’s failure here is staggering,” said Camille Bennett, attorney at ACLU of Illinois. “They were required by court order three years ago to develop a plan to fix the unconstitutional health care deficiencies for our clients across the state, and they have yet to do it. We hope this will wake up their leadership.”
Prisoners first sued IDOC in 2010, alleging systemic problems in health care, problems that lead to serious disease, harm and even death for people under the care of IDOC. The lawsuit, brought by named prisoners represented by the ACLU of Illinois, Dentons, and Uptown People’s Law Center resulted in an agreement with the State of Illinois in 2018, approved by the court in May 2019.
The agreement required IDOC to develop a comprehensive plan to improve medical care. For more than three years, the Department has failed to take that step, leading the court to enforce the contempt order. 
“The delay in simply developing a plan has resulted in harm and death for people detained throughout the state,” added Harold Hirshman, attorney at Dentons.  “That is not speculation – the court’s own experts have reported this sad reality on a regular basis.”
Just yesterday a report was made public wherein a federal court monitor found that IDOC had made virtually none of the improvements required during the past three years. The report noted that IDOC's care of the elderly was so bad that it constituted elder abuse, in violation of Illinois law. The monitor describes patients who: 

  • developed bed sores because staff did not turn them in bed, 
  • were left to sit in their own waste in wheelchairs, 
  • wasted away because staff did not bother to feed them, 
  • broke their bones because staff did not help them get out of bed, and 
  • had symptoms of cancer that were ignored until the cancer had advanced so far that it could not be treated. 

“IDOC clearly wants to continue their misconduct with impunity, hidden behind prison walls. Their complete disregard for the health and safety of people in prison should disgust every taxpayer in Illinois. If this was a private nursing home, the way these elders have been treated would trigger a state investigation, and the home would immediately be shut down,” said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, which is co-counsel on all three lawsuits.
The contempt order on health care provided by IDOC fits a pattern of issues that the Department has failed to address in recent years. Prisoners with a mental illness, for example, have been in court since 2007 trying to force IDOC to provide them with meaningful treatment, represented by Equip for Equality, Dentons, and Uptown People’s Law Center. In May 2016, a settlement was reached in which IDOC agreed to make dozens of changes to ensure that prisoners received the treatment they needed.
Also yesterday, the federal court monitor's sixth annual report on mental health care in IDOC was filed with the court, which found prison officials had failed to comply with almost every remaining term of the settlement—from hiring needed staff, to providing out-of-cell recreation and treatment. Even the most seriously ill prisoners in the Department’s residential treatment units received virtually no treatment and many were locked in their cells nearly 24 hours per day most days. In the face of these findings, prison officials declared they no longer had any obligation to comply with the settlement. Now, the plaintiff class—over 11,000 people with mental illness in Illinois prisons—must return to court, to prove their case all over again.
Prisoners who are deaf and hard of hearing also sued the prison system in 2011, represented by Equip for Equality, the National Association of the Deaf, Uptown People’s Law Center, and Winston & Strawn. In July 2018, a court order was entered by agreement which required prison officials to provide the accommodations necessary to allow deaf and hard of hearing prisoners to communicate effectively. A key step was to have all eligible prisoners examined by an audiologist to determine the degree of their hearing loss. On August 3rd of this year, the federal court found that for the first two years after the consent decree was entered, IDOC did virtually nothing, and did not make a reasonable effort as required by the court order to get prisoners an audiologist exam. As a result, rather than prompt evaluation, prisoners had to wait many months, and sometimes as long as two years before they were evaluated by an audiologist, let alone actually provided needed accommodations such as hearing aids. Only in year three, after plaintiffs sought sanctions from the federal court, did they make any real effort to comply. 

ACLU of Illinois is the statewide affiliate office of the American Civil Liberties Union, a national non-profit organization devoted to the protection of civil rights and civil liberties through litigation, legislation, and public education.
Dentons is the world's largest law firm, delivering quality and value to clients around the globe. Dentons is a leader on the Acritas Global Elite Brand Index, a BTI Client Service 30 Award winner and recognized by prominent business and legal publications for its innovations in client service, including founding Nextlaw Labs and the Nextlaw Global Referral Network.
Equip for Equality is a private, not-for-profit entity designated in 1985 by the Governor of Illinois to administer the federally mandated protection and advocacy system for safeguarding the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities in Illinois.
The National Association of the Deaf, established in 1880, is the nation’s premier organization safeguarding the civil, human and linguistics rights of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the USA.
Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) is a nonprofit legal services organization specializing in prisoners’ rights, Social Security disability, and tenants’ rights and eviction defense. UPLC currently has six class action lawsuits against the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Winston & Strawn LLP is an international law firm with 15 offices across North America, Asia, and Europe.