Judge plans to dismiss Illinois prison mental health lawsuit

A federal judge has signaled his intention to throw out a massive civil rights lawsuit pending since 2007 against the Illinois Department of Corrections, which is seeking significant improvements in the mental health care of more than 12,000 inmates.

In a preliminary ruling issued last week during a conference call with attorneys for the state and inmates, U.S. District Judge for Central Illinois Michael Mihm said he planned to dismiss the case, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear pending claims in the case.

The jurisdiction issue was raised by Mihm in a Sept. 18 order in which he asked lawyers to respond to his concerns that the federal court’s jurisdiction ended in January 2022 when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned its approval of a settlement for a settlement requiring cleanup improvements in programs for mentally ill prisoners. Mihm, the appeals court said, exceeded its authority in its detailed mandate to improve mental health.

Mihm noted that the federal appeals court did not send the case back to federal court to resolve any remaining issues. The judge told the lawyers that the dismissal will take effect with his final written decision, which is expected to be filed soon.

In response to the dismissal, Harold Hirschman, one of the inmates’ attorneys who has worked on the case for 15 years, said Friday: “The issue is not resolved. To see the case evaporate into a procedural quagmire is terribly shocking and frankly disappointing.”

According to Hirschman, the surprise decision did not come as a result of a motion or argument from the state or the inmates and was issued more than a year after the appeals court decision.

Mentally ill inmates are now “completely at the tender mercy of IDOC,” Hirschman said.

Even under court supervision, the care of prisoners is “horrendous. When nobody’s looking, I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen to them, or maybe I don’t want to imagine,” Hirschman said.

History of the case

Filed in 2007 by Ashur Rasho, a mentally ill inmate who has since been released, the lawsuit calls for an overhaul of mental health services offered in Illinois prisons. The baseline for poor quality behavioral health services was outlined by expert Fred Cohen in a 2012 report that remains sealed and unavailable even to Michm. Rasho’s case was later expanded to include 12,000 mentally ill prisoners.

In 2016, a settlement agreement was approved by Mihm with specific timelines and changes the state was ordered to make, including assessments for incoming inmates, medication monitoring and psychiatric care for severely mentally ill inmates.

The dismissal comes as attorneys for the state and the inmates prepare for a lawsuit over unresolved issues in the settlement.

For more than a decade, inmates and correctional staff have lived and worked under an evolving mental health plan known by one name: Rasho.

In a statement to WGLT, IDOC spokeswoman Naomi Puzzello said, “The court’s recent direction that it will reject Rasho litigation will not change the services provided to the mentally ill population at IDOC. The department will continue to serve its mentally ill population and remains committed to achieving its goals without the need for judicial oversight.

A spokesman for Gov. JB Pritzker, who is also named in the lawsuit, responded by saying IDOC continued to build a comprehensive mental health system with providers at each facility and that dropping the case would not affect inmate care.

“In addition, the Department has developed a robust quality improvement program to monitor compliance with its policies and procedures, which are consistent with nationally recognized standards,” spokesman Alex Goff said in a statement.

A monitor appointed by the court to monitor compliance with the agreement issues periodic reports to the judge. While some areas of mental health programs have improved, others have lagged, including the hiring of staff to work in treatment centers located in four state prisons. A shortage of corrections officers to escort inmates to psychiatric facilities within the prison has caused delays in treatment.

Following Mihm’s decision to dismiss the case, Hirschman filed additional arguments on the jurisdictional issue. Crucial decisions about how to proceed with the case were made by the plaintiffs, Hirschman said, based on the court’s jurisdiction over the settlement.

“By remanding the case while the settlement was still in effect, and now planning to dismiss the case more than a year later, the Court has deprived the plaintiffs of their right to seek relief … from the consent decree, which now fails to provide the plaintiffs with any remedies for their claims,” Hirschman argued in his filing.

Hirschman declined to discuss the next steps the legal team might take in its efforts to improve mental health care. “But it won’t be forgotten,” Hirschman said.

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