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IDOC official: State meeting mental health standards

Pantagraph - 8/29/2018

Aug. 29--PEORIA -- The chief mental health officer for the Illinois Department of Corrections has changed his negative view of care provided to more than 11,000 mentally ill inmates.

Melvin Hinton concluded a day of testimony in federal court Tuesday with his opinion that he now considers Illinois prisons to be in compliance with constitutional standards for mental health care -- a view that differs from his previous testimony on the issue.

Hinton was one of several IDOC officials to testify in a trial in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois on whether a preliminary injunction issued in May requiring the state to improve mental health treatment should become permanent.

The most pointed questions were directed to Hinton by Judge Michael Mihm, who asked the mental health chief why he now believes the state is meeting its obligation to help mentally ill inmates, including those in segregation and those held on crisis watch.

Noting the state seems to have made significant progress in some areas since the May injunction, the judge asked Hinton, "Why did you need that order to do this?"

"I don't think we needed the order. I think it was just the process," said Hinton.

Mihm acknowledged that staffing shortages at several mental health units are a concern for him as the state struggles to complete a massive overhaul of its treatment program. The judge sought assurances -- and received them -- from Hinton that the state will continue to make progress without the weight of a court order.

Change within the department is a slow process, said Hinton, that requires philosophical as well as policy changes.

"We're changing the culture. It's not just issuing an order and it's followed," said Hinton.

In his questions to Hinton, Harold Hirschman, one of the lawyers for inmates in the federal lawsuit, asked how staffing shortages, including vacancies dating back four years, have been covered.

The state has authorized unlimited overtime for mental health staff and increased the use of telepsychiatry at several prisons, said Hinton.

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Treatment delays can have serious consequences, especially for the 700 mentally ill inmates who are held in segregation, said Hirschman.

At Pontiac Correctional Center, the facility housing the largest mental health caseload and segregation unit, the 26 vacant positions translate to more than 6,700 hours of services not delivered to inmates, according to IDOC data.

The state is making headway in the backlog of prisoners waiting to consult with a psychiatrist, said Hinton.

The backlog for psychiatric visits has dropped from 1,380 to 908 over the past six months, according to IDOC data.

The state has no control over the number and type of people who come into the state's custody, added Hinton.

"We have some of the most seriously mentally ill patients in the state -- period," Hinton told the judge.

The trial continues Wednesday with a court-appointed monitor expected to testify. In his reports on the state's efforts to follow the court order, Dr. Pablo Stewart has been critical of what he considers slow progress.

Contact Edith Brady-Lunny at (309) 820-3276. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_blunny


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