Will Helping Mentally Ill Prisoners Mean Less Treatment For Civilians?

Sep 9, 2016

Illinois has closed mental health centers, including one that used to be in Tinley Park; advocates say that -- combined with community clinics that shut down for lack of state funding -- have put pressure on the mental health safety net.
Credit Brian Mackey / WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration announced Friday afternoon that a portion of a state mental health facility in Elgin will become a ward for prisoners with mental illness.

Illinois' hand was forced to do something along these lines; the government agreed in settling a 2007 lawsuit, Rasho v. Baldwin, that alleged poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

In a press release, Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin calls the agreement between it and the Department of Human Services a "fundamental change."

"Prisons were not designed to be mental health facilities but we must adjust to this reality. This new inpatient treatment program will allow us to provide focused care for seriously mentally ill offenders and help them deal with daily stressors of a prison environment," he says in the statement.

However, Alan Mills, director of the Uptown People's Law Center, a prison advocacy organization, says it's a step, but "this is not by any means an ideal solution."

Mills says the plan so far is just that: a plan.

"It doesn't actually provide for the money the Department of Corrections needs to do modifications. Nor does it provide for money for the personnel to staff it," he says.

Mills says Illinois needs a separate hospital dedicated to mentally ill prisoners, and has needed one for years.

In that he's in agreement with AFSCME, the union representing prison guards, which has raised another issues.

AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall says the conversion means there'll be less room for civilian patients who receive temporary treatment at Elgin, at a time budget pressures forced other clinics to close.

"This would really create a vicious circle because what we have found ... is that when community metal health services are cut folks wind up increasingly in the criminal justice system," Lindall says. "There's a real problem in corrections that needs to be addressed with additional mental health services and treatment for inmates. Absolutely. This is not a solution to that problem. It is shifting the problem."

Still, Mills says AFSCME should realize that moving offenders with severe mental illness out of prisons will improve conditions for correctional officers in prisons, while also making it safer for other inmates.

Illinois' Dept. of Human Services says capacity is not a problem; it has space at other state mental health facilities for civilian patients in need of temporary care.

DHS spokeswoman Marianne Manko says transferring part of the Elgin facility to corrections means that "some" beds will be lost for both civilian patients, and "forensic" patients, individuals found unfit to stand trial or not guilty because they're insane.

As of 7 p.m. Friday, DHS could not provide numbers on either the number of beds that will be lost at Elgin, nor did Manko have on hand capacity figures for other state mental health centers.

Manko says DHS expects to have other patients vacated from the affected units at Elgin within 60-120 days.