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Federal judge orders IDOC to comply with health care decree

FILE - Security fences surround the Illinois Department of Corrections' Logan Correctional Center on Nov. 18, 2016, in Lincoln, Ill.
Seth Perlman
AP file
Efforts to resolve differences between the state and the monitor’s recommendations broke down last year, resulting in the IDOC bringing a new version of the plan for the state’s 29,000 detainees to the table.

The Illinois Department of Corrections has failed to create and implement a plan to improve medical care at state prisons, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in an opinion that cited a history of delays by IDOC to comply with a 2019 federal consent decree.

In a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ Eastern Division, Judge Jorge L. Alonso reminded the IDOC of its obligation under a 2019 agreement to work with a court-appointed monitor to develop and put in place major improvements in health care. The lawsuit is based on a 2010 complaint from Don Lippert, a diabetic inmate at Stateville Correctional Center who claimed he was denied his twice-daily doses of insulin, that grew into a class action against the state.

“For reasons that the COVID-19 pandemic does not fully explain and that remain unclear to the Court, defendants never prepared and submitted any implementation plan that came close to fitting” the 2019 agreement until December 2021, said the judge.

Efforts to resolve differences between the state and the monitor’s recommendations broke down last year, resulting in the IDOC bringing a new version of the plan for the state’s 29,000 detainees to the table.

“Not only was this not the process that the parties agreed upon and that the Court had ordered, but plaintiffs and the monitor believe this new version of the plan had regressed rather than improved,” the judge said in his ruling.

In its arguments against implementation of specific mandates, the IDOC relies in large part on a federal court ruling handed down last year in a lawsuit on mental health care for the 12,000 inmates on the state’s behavioral health caseload.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm overstepped his authority by imposing specific staffing levels and timelines. A determination must first be made to determine if the recommendation is the least intrusive option and extends no further than necessary to end the federal violation, the 7th Circuit ruled in a decision that has put the Rasho lawsuit back to the early stages of a settlement.

Alonso agreed that the so-called narrowness test is required before specific portions of a plan can be enforced, but the judge said such findings are premature and should be made after a plan is accepted.

The IDOC had no comment on the ruling, citing ongoing litigation.

After the ruling, Harold Hirschman, one of the lawyers for inmates, said “we’re hoping that the IDOC has gotten the message that doing nothing is unacceptable. There are certain matters, such as the conditions at Dixon Correctional Center, that we will bring to the court’s attention in keeping with the spirit of his ruling."

“Dixon is a death camp for elderly prisoners,” Hirschman said of the prison in northern Illinois that houses the medical unit for the state’s elderly and disabled inmates. A new court filing expected this week will address conditions at the facility, said the lawyer.

Hirschman could cite only one recent improvement in medical care. Inmates diagnosed with Hepatitis C are receiving care under an agreement between the state and the University of Illinois at Chicago for health care, he said.

Concerned that a hearing to resolve the dispute would delay the measures to improve health care, the judge adopted the monitor’s recommendations with a handful of exceptions.

The plan, the judge said, “is long overdue.”

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.