Updated 6:30 p.m.
The Illinois Department of Corrections has agreed to a plan that would allow a federal judge to oversee health care in the state’s prisons. The agreement comes eight years after a lawsuit was filed alleging the treatment in Illinois’ prisons is so poor that it violates the constitution.
Under the agreement, the state would have to make a range of changes, including improving staffing, providing health care screenings, and implementing better oversight to address medical errors. The reforms would be overseen by a court monitor and be enforced by a federal judge as part of something known as a consent decree. The agreement, between the department and lawyers from the ACLU of Illinois, Uptown People’s Law Center, and the law firm Dentons still has to be approved by the judge before it goes into effect.
A court-appointed expert recently wrote a report saying the department had a pattern of making egregious medical errors and failing to provide basic care, which resulted in the preventable deaths of inmates.
In 2016 and 2017, 174 people died while in an Illinois prison. The court expert looked at 33 deaths and found 12 of them were preventable, another seven were possibly preventable, and nine were not preventable. The other five deaths were not properly documented, which the expert report said made it impossible to assess the deaths.
The report concluded that one of the key problems was that medical staff in the prison didn't have the proper training or oversight. It noted “numerous grossly and flagrantly unacceptable episodes of care” that should have resulted in peer review. The expert also said peer review inside IDOC was ineffective and “physicians who commit repeated egregious medical errors continue to practice and continue to harm patients.”
The proposed agreement submitted to a federal judge Thursday requires the department to hire more qualified staff and to discipline and fire staff that put patients at risk.
“It is significant that the state has agreed to very specific professional qualifications for the physicians hired to provide health care in the state’s prisons,” said Harold Hirshman, lead trial counsel from Dentons US LLP.
The proposed agreement would also mandate that the department take action on reported errors and review deaths.
“Today’s agreement is a victory for 40,000 men and women across Illinois who have suffered because of this inadequate health care system – some of whom have died,” said Camille Bennett, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois.
One of the men who died was named Desmond Fane. He was profiled in the court expert’s report as “Patient #2” and later identified by WBEZ. Fane was 30 years old and incarcerated at Sheridan Correctional Center. His cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrhythmia.” The report outlines a litany of mistakes made by prison health care staff: Fane was was in the process of getting a surgery for his heart condition when he was sent to prison. A letter from his doctor was in the prison medical record. But the doctor was never contacted, and the surgery was never done.
The prison also gave him a medication that had the potential for severe side effects to his heart and may have contributed to his death. The report says there wasn’t even a clear reason for why doctors prescribed it.
Listen to the story of Desmond Fane’s mother. Both her son and her nephew, who she raised like a son, died while in the Department of Corrections care.
The proposed fixes to the state’s prison health care system are attached to timelines, some almost immediate, but others taking years to implement. Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, says he hopes “this is the beginning of the end of prisoners' needless suffering and even death. It is a long road, and we are committed to ensuring the necessary changes are made.”
The Department of Corrections refused to comment, because the agreement still needs to be approved in court.