SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Corrections is again under fire for failing to provide adequate health care for the roughly 29,000 prisoners in its system, with a scathing federal monitor’s report this week citing shortcomings that ranged from the mistreatment of elderly inmates to a severe shortage of doctors and nurses and poor record keeping.
The report was released just days after a federal judge held IDOC in contempt for failing to complete a process in developing a plan required by the monitor to improve the quality of health care for the agency’s prison population.
“IDOC’s failure here is staggering,” Camille Bennett, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented prisoners in the lawsuit that led to the contempt order, said in a statement. “They were required by court order three years ago to develop a plan to fix the unconstitutional health care deficiencies for our clients across the state and they have yet to do it. We hope this will wake their leadership.”
The problems at IDOC are the latest to confront Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker over his administration’s management of state agencies, which has been a major avenue of criticism from Republicans as he seeks reelection.
Issues under Pritzker’s watch include the deaths of 36 veterans during a 2020 COVID-19 outbreak at a state-run home in LaSalle; the loss of nearly $2 billion through fraudulent payments made through the state’s Department of Employment Security; and accusations of mismanagement at the Department of Children and Family Services, whose Pritzker-appointed director has been held in contempt on several occasions for failing to find appropriate placements for children.
In 2019, during Pritzker’s first year in office, IDOC fell under a federally mandated consent decree to overhaul its health care system, the culmination of a lawsuit filed against the agency in 2010 by prisoners who alleged systemic problems that led to serious disease and even death for prisoners.
The 292-page monitor’s report released Tuesday, the fifth of its kind since the consent decree went into effect, said some elderly prisoners with dementia appeared “neglected” and “abused.” Ailing prisoners in some cases were not adequately hydrated or provided assistance in eating by medical staff, according to the report. In one case, a prisoner in poor health was left on a mattress and soiled himself without a nurse cleaning him, the report said.
It also noted a shortage of doctors and nurses throughout the IDOC system, reporting that in one instance there was one doctor assigned as the medical director for four facilities housing 4,711 prisoners.
“This shortage of physicians has created an access to care and quality of care crisis at multiple facilities and needs to be urgently addressed,” the monitor said in the report.
The department “has difficulty in recruiting and retaining physicians with the required training and qualifications,” the report said, while also criticizing the agency for not routinely providing information on the credentials of the doctors it has hired.
An IDOC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pritzker, speaking to reporters at the unveiling of the butter cow sculpture at the Illinois State Fair, said that “health care within our prison system has actually improved significantly since I took office.”
The governor’s office said a health care plan for prisons was submitted in late May but there was never a response on it from the federal monitor.
“The plan is one that gets negotiated and the opposition anyway, on the other side of the case, disagrees with the plan that was put forward,” Pritzker said.
“One of the challenges that we have across the state of Illinois, really, is finding health care personnel of every sort for hospitals, for health care institutions and within our prison system,” the governor said. “So, in order to implement a plan, you need enough health care professionals, and that’s one of the challenges that we’re discussing with the other side (in the lawsuit).”
The federal monitor did find that IDOC deserved praise in some areas, particularly for how it navigated the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since February, there have been no “patient-inmate” hospitalizations due to COVID-19, the report stated, noting that IDOC “wisely” partnered with the Illinois Department of Public Health to implement policies for the virus.
The report also said the agency successfully implemented a system-wide vaccination program for inmates and staff as well as implementing universal masking, isolation and quarantine procedures and regular testing for the disease.
The report also noted how IDOC has been more proactive in treating prisoners diagnosed with hepatitis C from 2018 to May 2021. During that time, there were 288 prisoners with the disease and the treatment rate jumped from 6.9 patients a month to 23.5 a month.
“If this rate of hepatitis C treatment is maintained, it is feasible IDOC will have essentially eliminated hepatitis C in the Illinois prison system within the next three years,” according to the report.
The report comes as Pritzker is in a contentious race for reelection against Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey of downstate Xenia. Bailey’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest IDOC report.
Republican state Sen. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro said the report raises just one more question about Pritzker’s management of the state.
“This latest incident begs the question of how many times and how many agencies will it take before the governor accepts responsibility for these failures and finally takes action to do the right thing for the people hurt under his inaction and failed leadership?” Bryant said.
Pritzker’s response Wednesday was similar to one he has used before, when he’s said the GOP hasn’t supported additional funding for the programs necessary to solve problems at state agencies.
“Republicans haven’t voted for any of the funding that’s necessary for us to be able to improve the providing of health care in our prison system,” he said. “So, they really don’t have a leg to stand on.”
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