Editorial | A tall task for the Illinois Department of Corrections

Editorial | A tall task for the Illinois Department of Corrections

Legal challenges have put a spotlight on the need for improved physical and mental care for inmates, but finding the professionals to get the job done has been difficult.

Pending litigation in Illinois' federal courts demonstrates the serious responsibility and the high cost the state bears in providing health care to prison inmates.

Lawyers for the state's roughly 40,000 inmates recently announced they have reached an out-of-court lawsuit settlement that calls for a new program to provide improved health care to inmates. The agreement, which must be approved by a Chicago federal judge, provides for a court-appointed monitor to oversee a remake of the Department of Corrections' health care system.

The settlement comes in response to years-old lawsuits that alleged the department provided deficient medical care to inmates and that, as one consequence, some inmates who might otherwise have lived died.

At the same time, a second lawsuit is pending at the U.S. District Court in Peoria, where Judge Michael Mihm already has concluded that mentally ill inmates have suffered "immense harm" as a result of inadequate mental health care.

In a written opinion, Mihm ordered "appropriate mental health treatment" for inmates who need it. He directed officials to provide "sufficient staffing levels to provide mental health care."

While complaints about inmate care are sure to draw a sympathetic response, resolving them poses major problems.

For starters, those needing treatment number in the thousands, while medical professionals available to provide care can be hard to find.

Consider this statistic: An estimated 12,000-plus inmates of the 40,000 in the system need treatment. Of those 12,000-plus, 4,800 are "considered seriously mentally ill."

While the department has a statewide need for 65 psychiatrists, it has been able to employ a mere 29. Because it has been unable to hire adequate numbers of psychiatrists to treat those in need, it's been reduced to using primary care physicians and certified nurse practitioners as substitutes for psychiatrists.

Using doctors and nurses as substitutes for psychiatrists clearly is inadequate, but what is the state to do except continue to try — against formidable odds — to do better?

It also is worth pointing out the the department settled a lawsuit challenging its quality of mental health care in 2015 by putting in place plans for dramatic improvements to be overseen by a court-appointed monitor. Those plans — for a variety of reasons — failed to come to fruition, as the court-appointed monitor pointed out to Judge Mihm.

Now, another court-appointed monitor will be put in place, this time to oversee physical and dental health care delivery in the department. The agreement contains specific qualifications for health care providers, facilities and equipment upgrades, and additional staff members.

But agreeing in principle to make changes is a far cry from making those plans a reality.

There is no question that inmates are a deeply troubled population who provide serious challenges — mental and physical problems a lifetime in the making. There is also no question that the state has the legal responsibility to provide adequate medical care — mental, dental and physical — for those it confines behind bars.

All the state can do is its best, but so far that has not been close to good enough to meet its constitutional mandate.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion