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Judge plans to dismiss landmark Illinois prison mental health lawsuit

Landscape shot of the front of the Pontiac Correctional Center.
Charles Rex Arbogast
AP file
A file photo of the Pontiac Correctional Center, among the prisons notified about unsafe water

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

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

The issue of jurisdiction was raised by Mihm in a Sept. 18 order in which he asked attorneys to address his concerns that the federal court’s jurisdiction ended in January 2022 when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his approval of a settlement agreement that mandated sweeping improvements to programs for mentally ill prisoners. Mihm, the appeals court said, had overstepped his authority in his detailed mandate for mental health improvements.

Mihm noted that the federal appeals court did not remand the case back to federal court to resolve any remaining issues. The judge told attorneys the dismissal will become effective with his final written ruling, expected to be filed soon.

In reaction to the dismissal, Harold Hirshman, one of the attorneys for inmates who has worked on the case for 15 years, said Friday, “The problem has not been solved. To see the case evaporate in a procedural morass is horribly shocking and frankly disappointing.”

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

Mentally ill inmates now “are left totally to the tender mercies of the IDOC,” said Hirshman.

Even under court supervision, Inmates’ care is “abysmal. When no one is watching, I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen to them, or maybe I don’t want to imagine,” said Hirshman.

Lawsuit's history

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

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

The dismissal comes as lawyers for the state and inmates were preparing for a trial on the unresolved issues in the agreement.

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

In a statement to WGLT, IDOC spokesperson Naomi Puzzello said, “The Court’s recent indication it will dismiss the Rasho litigation will not change the services being provided to the mentally ill population within IDOC. The Department will continue to serve its mentally ill population and remains committed to meeting its goals without the need for court oversight.”

A spokesperson for Gov. JB Pritzker, who is also named in the lawsuit, responded by saying IDOC has continued to build a comprehensive mental health system with providers at each facility and that the case dismissal will not impact 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," spokesperson Alex Gough said in a statement.

A monitor named by the court to oversee compliance of the agreement has issued periodic reports to the judge. While some areas of mental health programming improved, others lagged, including the hiring of staff to work in residential treatment centers located in four state prisons. A shortage of correctional officers to escort inmates to mental health facilities within a prison has caused treatment delays.

After Mihm’s decision to end the lawsuit, Hirshman filed additional arguments on the issue of jurisdiction. Crucial decisions as to how to proceed with the lawsuit were made by plaintiffs, said Hirshman, based on the court’s jurisdiction over the settlement.

“By returning the case to the trial docket while the agreement was still in effect, and now planning to dismiss the case over a year later, the Court has deprived plaintiffs of their right to seek relief … from the consent decree which has now failed to provide plaintiffs with any remedy for their claims,” Hirshman argued in his filing.

Hirshman declined to discuss the next moves the legal team may take in their efforts to improve mental health care. “But this will not be forgotten,” said Hirshman.

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Updated: October 20, 2023 at 2:55 PM CDT
A spokesperson for Gov. JB Pritzker, who is also named in the lawsuit, responded by saying the lawsuit dismissal will not impact care for mentally ill inmates.
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.