Judge OKs class-action suit over Illinois prison health care

CHICAGO — A lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections alleging inadequate health care in state prisons may cover all inmates with serious medical needs in every prison facility, a judge ruled.

The Friday decision by U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso means thousands of inmates could be affected by the class-action lawsuit, which claims medical and dental care provided by the Corrections Department doesn’t meet minimum constitutional standards. It also could require the state to make changes at more than two dozen prison facilities if the court ultimately finds in favor of the inmates.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which filed the long-standing lawsuit on behalf of several inmates, applauded the ruling.

“The system of providing health care to prisoners in Illinois is broken and must be fixed,” said staff attorney Camille Bennett. “Until today, advocates looking to fix this broken system have been forced to seek redress for one person at a time. Allowing this action to move forward on behalf of the entire class of prisoners means that the solutions must be systemic.”

A 2015 report by court-approved researchers following visits to eight Illinois prisons found treatment delays, poor record keeping, haphazard follow-up care and other serious problems. The 405-page report concluded that the level of care may have cut short the lives of some inmates.

The Corrections Department, which oversees about 49,000 inmates, argued the report provided an incomplete picture of the “comprehensive medical system in place” in Illinois facilities. Researchers reviewed records from a sample of 63 prisoner deaths over several years and said they found “significant lapses” in care in 60 percent of those cases.

In one case outlined in the report, a 48-year-old prisoner pleaded for medical help after he began coughing up blood. But it took six months for physicians at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg to locate a softball-size tumor in his chest, the report stated. He died four months later.

Researchers stated that “the blatant disregard for this patient’s obvious symptoms … is stunning.”

Lawyers for the state opposed class-action status, arguing in court filings that the inmates who sued received proper medical care. They also stated there would be no “objective, administratively feasible way to determine which inmates have serious medical or dental needs” and that the department doesn’t keep a list of inmates who would meet the criteria.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said Saturday that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation and had nothing to add beyond the court filings.

The case is next scheduled to be in federal court in Chicago on May 16.

–Associated Press

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