IDOC director eager to start mental health overhaul

2016-05-22 | The Pantagraph

May 22--SPRINGFIELD -- The director of the Illinois Department of Corrections is looking for the state to become a model for inmate mental health care, a task he admits will take years and millions of dollars to complete.

In an interview with The Pantagraph, John Baldwin outlined the first steps the department that houses about 47,000 inmates has taken to improve treatment and housing conditions for 11,000 mentally ill prisoners currently under the department's supervision.

The massive overhaul of the state's mental health program is detailed in a settlement agreement approved earlier this month by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm. The agreement ends eight years of litigation between inmates and the state.

"Our goal is to set the standard," said Baldwin, adding he wants "Illinois to be a national model" in mental health care for its network of prisons that includes about 850 inmates from McLean County.

According to cost estimates in the settlement, reaching that goal could take several years and about $30 million in new salaries for additional staffing and $60 million in construction costs to renovate space and build four residential treatment units for seriously mentally ill prisoners.

The state has been hiring staff for more than a year to fill mental health positions, a task that is challenging given the competitive health care market. A treatment unit has opened at Dixon Correctional Center and a second one is set to open this month at the Logan Correctional Center for women.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is committed to seeing that funding is available for the project, said Baldwin.

Training -- some of it delivered without cost to the state -- also has started for the department's 11,500 employees, said Baldwin.

"A lot of what we do doesn't cost anything," said Baldwin, citing as an example a program that, so far, has seen 3,500 workers complete a two-day basic mental health course provided at no cost by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Twelve employees are receiving training in core correctional practices through the National Institute of Corrections and will go on to train other staff in the future.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago group that monitors Illinois prisons and reports its findings, said she is pleased with the priority Baldwin has placed on mental health since he was hired in August.

Baldwin, who managed Iowa's only forensic psychiatric hospital during his long career in that state, "asked where the corrections department's psychiatric hospital was when he came here. That shows he understands the importance of it," said Vollen-Katz.

Indeed, the lack of hospital-level care for the most seriously mentally ill was a major hurdle in the negotiations between the state and lawyers for the inmates. An estimated 50 inmates held in segregation are in immediate need of hospitalization, according to data cited in the lawsuit.

The state's willingness to screen inmates soon after their arrival and provide ongoing and appropriate care will help the state reach its goal to release people back into the community in better shape than when they entered prison, said Vollen-Katz.

At a time when the state has little money, the wise use of what's available is critical, she said.

"We're using all these resources and not generating a good outcome. The settlement takes a significant step towards Illinois doing better in that regard," said Vollen-Katz.

On the issue of re-entry services, Baldwin said a reform measure will link the state's adult and juvenile prison systems with the Department of Health and Human Services.

"With this transformation, we will begin to share data with state agencies so that when someone leaves us, that information will follow to the Department of Human Services," he said, adding that connection will allow ex-offenders to continue their mental health services after they return home.

He noted that existing prison programs will have to prove their worth in order to continue under the Prove It initiative. Through a research partnership with Southern Illinois University, IDOC will be able to determine if programs are effective in their goals for both staff and inmates.

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny