Study Released Today Says 60% of Non-Violent Deaths Show “Significant lapses in care”

May 20, 2015

CHICAGO – The Illinois Department of Corrections has failed to provide adequate medical care to prisoners across the state, according to a new expert report filed in federal court. The report cites sweeping problems with a broad range of medical services, including unqualified and incompetent physicians and nurses, inadequate medical leadership and management and staffing of IDOC facilities, a lack of adequate and sanitary medical facilities across IDOC, and a lack of follow-up and ability to correct mistakes that pervade the system. 

The report was filed by Dr. Ronald Shansky and a team of medical experts selected jointly by lawyers for IDOC and the inmates and appointed by the federal court in Lippert v. Godinez, a lawsuit challenging medical care in the IDOC system.   IDOC currently houses nearly 50,000 prisoners in facilities in all parts of the state.  

“This report demonstrates that Illinois is inflicting needless pain and suffering by failing to provide basic medical care for its prisoners.” said Benjamin Wolf, Associate Legal Director for the ACLU of Illinois. “The state is giving a for profit company tens of millions of dollars each year for substandard care. The broken nature of the system is revealed by the serious and preventable harm inflicted on so many of these vulnerable patients. People in the free world would never use a health care provider that did such a poor job, but these prisoners have no choice of who will provide their care when they get sick.” 

The expert report criticized DOC for not having qualified physicians. As one example, a patient at the Menard Correctional Center with Type I diabetes was being treated by a physician who was not trained in primary care. The doctor discontinued the patient’s insulin use after his blood sugar levels were found to be normal while on the insulin. This error, the report notes, reflects “a lack of understanding of the basic pathophysiology of this common disease.”  

The experts found “significant lapses in care” in 60% of the cases of prisoners who died from other than violent causes from January 1, 2013, to June 1, 2014. A patient at IDOC’s Illinois River facility, for example, presented “classic” signs and symptoms of lung cancer upon his entry into IDOC. Medical staff either ignored or failed to recognize these symptoms for more than three months. By the time the patient was diagnosed, the only treatment option was palliative radiation. The patient died nine days later.    

The medical experts appointed by the court also examined a number of other deaths in the IDOC system.  In many of the deaths, the experts found there were a number of significant deviations from the standard of care. These deviations vary from delays in testing and care to lack of follow up and failures to refer patients to specialists.

The report notes that in many IDOC locations, there are numerous medical vacancies, often including the medical director or other key leadership positions. Additionally, the report notes that many of the medical professionals – as in the example at Menard – are not trained to deal with the medical issues they confront in the prison population. The experts add that this problem is “compounded by a lack of oversight and peer review,” which causes problems to fester and grow.    

“The lack of expertise and personnel is especially troubling,” added Jason Stiehl, a partner in the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. “Unqualified staff cannot provide competent, comprehensive medical care to the population. These deficiencies result in horrific consequences.”  

“The tragic stories of prisoners unnecessarily suffering—even dying—from terrible medical care are disturbing. But the deeper question is why these elderly, seriously ill people are in prison in the first place. This report is further proof that Illinois simply has too many people in prison. As long as we imprison people, we have a constitutional obligation to provide decent care. Illinois is falling woefully short of its legal obligations,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director at Uptown People’s Law Center.

The filing of the expert report is the latest development in Lippert, et. al, v. Godinez. Lawyers from Uptown People’s Law Center and the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP filed the class action complaint on behalf of six prisoners in 2012, and the ACLU of Illinois joined the lawsuit in 2013.  

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