Federal Judge Holds Illinois Prison System in Contempt for Inadequate Medical Care

A court monitor's report found evidence of neglect and abuse of dementia patients, including signing "do not resuscitate" orders that they could not understand.


A federal judge has held the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) in contempt for failing to abide by a court order to improve medical care for incarcerated people.

The August 5 contempt order came after a court monitor's report, released in June, found the IDOC had failed to fully comply with nearly every measure in a 2019 plan to provide adequate health and dental care to incarcerated people under its supervision. Among the report's findings: failures to quickly diagnose cancer, lack of dental care, and poor treatment of dementia patients "that appeared consistent with neglect and abuse." This included dementia patients not being given enough fluids or assistance with eating, and signing "do not resuscitate" orders and living wills that they could not understand.

"The chronic care program is systemically broken," the report concluded.

A federal judge ordered the IDOC to create the comprehensive reform plan in 2019 as part of a settlement in a 2010 lawsuit by inmates and several law firms against the IDOC alleging inadequate health care, dental care, and mental health treatment. But the monitor found "a wide gap" between what the agency believes it accomplished and actual progress. Furthermore, the monitor says the IDOC failed to send 80 percent of the information it requested.

"IDOC clearly wants to continue their misconduct with impunity, hidden behind prison walls," Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People's Law Center, said in a press release. "Their complete disregard for the health and safety of people in prison should disgust every taxpayer in Illinois. If this was a private nursing home, the way these elders have been treated would trigger a state investigation, and the home would immediately be shut down."

The court monitor's report attributes many of the lapses to chronic understaffing of medical personnel.

The Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment guarantees incarcerated people the right to basic health care, hygiene, and clean living conditions, but instances of stomach-churning medical neglect and indifference to those constitutional rights have been documented in prison systems across the country.

The IDOC is only the latest prison system to be sanctioned for abysmal medical care of incarcerated people. Last month, a federal judge ruled that Arizona's prison system was still violating inmates' Eighth Amendment right to health care seven years after a lawsuit settlement that was supposed to fix the issue. After an expert witness's report documented gruesome medical neglect—including a paraplegic man who was left to physically deteriorate until his penis had to be amputated—the judge ruled that Arizona prison officials were deliberately indifferent to "grossly inadequate" medical and mental health care.

In New York City, a string of preventable deaths and chronic corruption has put the infamous Rikers Island jail complex under threat of being put in receivership by a federal judge.

"IDOC's failure here is staggering," Camille Bennett, attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said in a press release. "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 up their leadership."

In a statement to Reason, an IDOC spokesperson says that the court monitor "advocated that the Department create a healthcare system that far exceeds community standards." The spokesperson also says that the department hired an independent correction healthcare expert who "reviewed the same records as the Monitor and found that the Monitor's reviews included extensive inflammatory and inaccurate statements which are unsupported and are meant to cast unfair doubts on the entire IDOC healthcare system."