The Joliet Treatment Center, located just southwest of Chicago, is one of three mental health treatment facilities now providing mental health care to 765 of Illinois' sickest inmates. The facilities were created as part of a lawsuit settlement. (Christine Herman/Illinois Public Media)
Ashoor Rasho has spent more than half of his life alone in a prison cell — 22 to 24 hours a day. The cell was so narrow he could reach his arms out and touch both walls at once.
“It was pretty broke down, the whole system, the way they treated us,” says the 43-year-old Rasho, who has several mental health conditions.
He says little things would trigger him and he’d react violently. Although he was arrested for robbery and burglary, his sentence was extended over and over for assaults on prison staff.
“Even if they would label us schizophrenic or bipolar, we would still be considered behavioral problems,” he says. “So the only best thing for them to do was keep us isolated. Or they heavily medicate you.”
He spent most of his 26-year prison sentence in restrictive housing, or solitary confinement, where he had hallucinations, engaged in self-mutilation and tried to kill himself.
Listen to Part 1: Problems in Illinois prisons
Listen to Part 2: A look at proposed solutions
In 2007, Rasho and 12,000 other inmates with mental illness sued the Illinois Department of Corrections, alleging the agency punishes inmates with mental illness instead of properly treating them.
A settlement was reached in 2016, when the state agreed to revamp mental health care and provide better treatment.
But a federal judge has ruled that care remains “grossly insufficient” and “extremely poor.” The agency has not hired enough mental health staff to provide care to everyone who needs it, and inmates will mental illness suffer as they continue to wait for long-overdue treatment.
Punishment, not treatment
Dr. Stuart Grassian is a psychiatrist who spent 25 years at Harvard studying how the conditions in solitary confinement cause harm—especially for the mentally ill.
“You’re looking at the population of a state psychiatric hospital,” says Grassian, who has met hundreds of inmates like Rasho who’ve served long sentences in extreme isolation.
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