For inmates like Ashoor Rasho, who has been diagnosed with severe depression, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, seeking help for mental health issues while incarcerated proves difficult.
“Even if they would label us schizophrenic or bipolar, we would still be considered behavioral problems,” Rasho tells NPR. “So the only best thing for them to do was keep us isolated. Or they heavily medicate you.”
Rasho’s sentence, according to NPR, was extended numerous times due to him assaulting prison staff after being set off by various triggers.
In 2007, Rasho was among 12,000 other inmates who sued the Illinois Department of Corrections for not adequately treating those with mental health diagnoses, and instead punishing them.
In 2016, the case reached a settlement and the state decided to re-assess and improve its mental health care.
Even so, NPR reports that a federal judge maintains that such care is still “grossly insufficient” and “extremely poor.”
The issue isn’t just in Illinois. Across the country, correctional facilities are struggling to provide the care needed for inmates with mental health issues. State and federal prison data from 2011 through 2012 indicated that about 40% of inmates have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, yet only about half of those were received medication or counseling.
In Illinois specifically, providing adequate care has been a central area of struggle.
“Corrections in Illinois was a little slow to recognize we are the mental health system for Illinois,” John Baldwin, director of the state’s corrections department, tells NPR. “Whether we want to be or not, we are; and we have to start acting like it.”
According to Baldwin, change is in motion. He says that since he started in his position in 2015, more mental health staff has been hired and training has been implemented. He says most of the state’s inmates spend about eight hours per day outside their cells and see a therapist weekly.
He also notes that around 765 of the inmates with the most serious diagnoses have been moved to a residential facility for treatment.
The Joliet Treatment Center, located southwest of Chicago, is one of the prison facilities making strides in such care. A few years back, the prior youth detention center underwent a $17 million renovation to become the current mental health treatment facility for inmates.
Warden Andrea Tack tells NPR that inmates at Joliet dedicate about 30 hours weekly to activities and individual treatment plans.
Alan Mills, one of the attorneys from the 2007 lawsuit, says he has witnessed some transformations in inmates in such facilities.
“And it’s a difficult transition,” he tells NPR, “because you’ve been treated in a place where you’re continually traumatized, and then you get to a place where actually people care about you.”