Performing difficult jobs appears to be too much to ask.
The state of Illinois recently suffered another in a series of black eyes when its Department of Corrections was held in contempt of court for dragging its feet in meeting its obligations to provide adequate health care to inmates.
This is getting to be a habit. The Department of Children and Family Services has been repeatedly cited for contempt for its failure to care for the children in its custody. The Department of Human Services has been cited for failing to transfer mentally ill jail inmates to state mental-health centers.
The Department of Corrections also has had run-ins with the courts over inadequate mental health care it provides to prison inmates, although a federal appeals court bailed the state out of that jam.
Standing on top of those administrative failures or shortcomings is the state’s failure to protect residents at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home during the coronavirus pandemic. Thirty-six residents died while dozens of others became ill due to the failure of managers to take the proper actions.
This series of events demonstrates two things.
It’s extremely difficult, for a variety of reasons, to meet the challenges posed by caring for the physical health and mental well-being of inmates. At the same time, the state isn’t very good at meeting difficult challenges.
In the latest case, the Department of Corrections was held in contempt for “failure to meet” the health care standards that it had agreed to meet and failing to file an implementation plan ordered by the court.
It’s been four years since the department promised to develop a specific plan, a passage of time that caused American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Camille Bennett to describe the state’s failure as “staggering.”
Some problems are more easily managed than others, and a court monitor cited a few. They include examples of medical failures such as aged inmates, unable to care for themselves, who developed bedsores because prison staff members did not turn them; inmates left to sit in their own waste in wheelchairs; inmates who wasted away because they were not fed; and inmates who sustained broken bones because they received no help getting out of bed.
One finding unrelated to the elderly involved ignoring inmates who showed symptoms of cancer until “the cancer had advanced so far it could not be treated.”
One obvious problem that needs to be addressed in a more systematic way is the existence of elderly inmates who are unable to care for themselves. If they are that feeble, should they be held in a prison setting? If not, what’s a better alternative?
Gov. J.B. Pritzker defended Corrections officials by noting, correctly, that the state has a serious problem hiring the necessary staff to care for inmates. He also, unfortunately, blamed legislative Republicans for failure to appropriate funds needed to solve the problem.
That’s not a surprise in a hyperpartisan state like Illinois, but Pritzker knows that the Democrats, not Republicans, hold all the power here.
It’s not clear how the state will deal with this problem going forward. Pritzker said the state submitted a health care plan to the court monitor but received no response.
It’s also unclear what impact the contempt finding will have. Just what does it mean in this context? DCFS has been repeatedly cited for contempt, and not much has come of it.
After all, these are managerial failures caused by a variety of circumstances, not willful refusals to make achievable improvements.
Nonetheless, these failures speak to the state’s glaring inability to alleviate suffering of people in its custody. That is — or at least ought to be — a shocking embarrassment.