CHICAGO — In a decision with wide-ranging implications for prisoners across Illinois, a federal judge ruled last week that long-standing problems with the medical and dental care provided in Illinois's state prisons must be addressed systemically, rather than relying on individual challenges from prisoners. U.S. District Court Judge Jorge Alonso has held that the lawsuit, Lippert v. Baldwin, can move forward as a class action. The decision comes after a panel of healthcare experts found the system of providing health care for the more than 45,000 prisoners under IDOC control was woefully lacking, causing needless pain and suffering.
"The system of providing health care to prisoners in Illinois is broken and must be fixed," said Camille Bennett, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "Until now, 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 — addressing every single facility operated by the IDOC."
The ruling by Judge Alonso relies heavily on an expert report filed with the court, which reported pervasive problems across IDOC ranging from broken equipment and lack of basic sanitation and infection control to gross medical errors coupled with failures in basic care and follow-up. The report criticized IDOC for not having qualified physicians. In one example cited in the report, a patient at Menard Correctional Center with Type 1 diabetes was being treated by a non-primary care trained physician, who erroneously discontinued the patient's insulin use after his blood sugar levels were found to be normal while on insulin. The experts described this as reflecting "a lack of understanding of the basic pathophysiology of this common disease."
"The expert report made the systemic nature of this problem undeniable," said Jason Stiehl, a partner in the Chicago law office of Akerman LLP. "We are pleased that the judge saw this reality and made this a class action so that we can move forward with efforts to fix the entire system — not simply bring individual complaints from persons who have been harmed by it."
Mr. Stiehl and Lawyers from the Uptown People's Law Center filed the class action complaint on behalf of six prisoners in 2011. In 2013, the ACLU of Illinois joined the lawsuit.
Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, one of the lawyers representing the prisoners, stated "Illinois has endangered the health of thousands of people locked in our prisons for many years. Prisoners are provided care which is so inadequate that serious illnesses are left untreated, people are forced to live in pain for months with easily treatable conditions, and in some cases have suffered permanent damage, had legs amputated, and even died as a result."