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A Pontiac Correctional Center guard checks security at the prison's east gate in August 2015. 

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Corrections is making progress in its effort to create a mental health treatment system that meets constitutional mandates, prison officials told lawmakers Wednesday.

“We have taken our responsibility very seriously” to help the 30 percent of the inmate population with a diagnosed mental illness, IDOC Director John Baldwin told members of the Illinois House Appropriations Public Safety Committee.

IDOC limited its comments because of unresolved issues in a pending federal lawsuit.

The hearing on how to fund the massive overhaul of the state’s mental health system followed a ruling Friday from U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm that found the state in violation of the constitutional rights to adequate care for 12,000 mentally ill inmates.

In his final ruling in the lawsuit filed in 2007 by inmate Ashoor Rasho that expanded to a class action lawsuit with 12,000 inmates, Mihm concluded IDOC is facing an emergency situation in its failure to deliver the care outlined in a 2016 settlement agreement between inmates and the state.

Alan Mills, a lawyer for inmates, told lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing, “It's been five years we’ve had an emergency in the Department of Corrections.”

The lack of sufficient mental health staff to provide treatment to an inmate population that includes 4,800 seriously mentally ill people is a chronic issue that impacts the entire mental health system, said the ruling. State officials have acknowledged the challenges in recruiting and retaining staff, including the 65 psychiatrists needed for care.

An official with Wexford Health Sources, the contractor responsible for supplying the staff, told the committee Wednesday that most mental health positions will soon be filled.

The IDOC is behind in its progress to ensure timely evaluations and treatment plans, medication management, and high-level care to inmates in crisis and segregation, the judge concluded.

“Bottom line is, these defendants are required to maintain a minimum level of medical service to avoid the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. They have no done so,” Mihm said in his 42-page opinion.

The judge found that a lack of proper monitoring of psychotropic medications “has created a seriously dangerous situation.”

Mentally ill inmates held in segregation fare worse than their counterparts in general population, according to Mihm.  Reports from court-appointed monitor Dr. Pablo Stewart and testimony from inmates supported the claim that prisoners' mental health issues worsen in solitary confinement without care.   

Mihn recognized the positive steps taken by IDOC to increase staffing levels and open residential treatment units in several facilities. The new hospital unit in Elgin and a treatment center in Joliet add options for enhanced care, according to the state.

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