News Local/State

Court Monitor: To Change ‘Culture Of Abuse’ In Illinois Prisons, First Help Traumatized Staff

Pontiac Correctional Center

In a recent report from a court-appointed monitor, Pontiac Correctional Center was singled out for having a "culture of abuse and retaliation" against mentally ill inmates. WGLT

In a report filed in federal court earlier this week, court-appointed monitor Dr. Pablo Stewart said he’s “absolutely convinced” mentally ill inmates are abused by staff at the Pontiac Correctional Center.

In an interview with Illinois Public Media, he said the abusive behavior is inexcusable—but it’s also important to understand the context for it if there's to be any hope for real change.

Stewart is a psychiatrist tasked with overseeing a 2016 lawsuit settlement regarding the lack of constitutionally adequate mental health care in state prisons.

He said inmates across Illinois get transferred to the state prison in Pontiac if they have behavior issues, which are often due to untreated mental illness.

That makes it a tough environment to work in, Stewart said. Pontiac staff have been physically assaulted and sexually harassed by inmates—and they suffer trauma-related conditions as a result.

Stewart said research shows this kind of trauma makes corrections officers more prone to retaliation.

“So it isn’t as if you get a bunch of sadistic guys beating the hell out of these prisoners,” Stewart said. “But you get a group of individuals who are traumatized, in my opinion. That then puts them at risk of developing this culture of abuse and retaliation that I see at Pontiac.”

Stewart said both custody and mental health staff at Pontiac need better support to help them deal with the trauma they face on the job.

“Just coming in with a heavy hand and getting on these officers saying, ‘Look, you can’t beat people up, you can’t slam these people’s heads into the wall,’ is not enough,” he said. “You have to address the underlying problem, which is the fact that these guys and women are suffering from trauma-related conditions.”

In an emailed statement, Department of Corrections spokesperson Lindsey Hess said providing timely and comprehensive support to staff is a priority for the agency:

Over the past two years, Hess said the Department has implemented several initiatives focused on the mental, physical and emotional well-being of employees, including:

  • Staff Well Response Teams that respond to critical incidents statewide and provide peer support. Members of the teams are trained to use the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) method when providing assistance to peers who are experiencing stress or trauma. The goal of the program is to lessen the impact on employees who are exposed to critical incidents by providing coping strategies and connecting them to available resources.
  • From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment is a recurring course offered to staff statewide. The program uses evidence and data to explain the psychological dynamics of corrections.
  • The AFSCME Illinois Personal Support Program offers free services statewide through a network of professional counselors who are licensed and specially trained to provide confidential assistance to IDOC staff.

Stewart emphasized that staff trauma is not an excuse or justification for assaulting inmates.

But he said the Department of Corrections needs to step up their efforts to provide counseling, group therapy and other assistance to employees who are themselves suffering, so that they can work through their trauma in a constructive manner instead of acting out against offenders. 

Without this, Stewart said he worries the culture of abuse he's observed in his past 30 months as court monitor will continue to persist. 

Christine Herman is a recipient of the 2018-2019 Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman