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Civil rights lawyers call on Illinois to fire private prison health care company

A dirty bed without sheets sits askew in the middle of a jail with dirty floors, dirty white walls and a scuffed door with no door knob.
A mental health crisis cell at Lawrence Correctional Center in Illinois. Lawmakers heard testimony Monday asking them to find a new health care provider for people locked up in state prisons. This photo was included in a 2020 federal court filing in Davis v. Jefferys, a lawsuit over prison isolation and has been altered to increase clarity.

The state has paid Wexford Health Sources more than $1 billion, but about half the medical positions are unfilled. As their contract expires, lawmakers hear calls for change.

Illinois lawmakers heard testimony on Monday from civil rights lawyers and family members about the dismal state of health care in the state’s prisons: people in wheelchairs left sitting in their own waste, bedsores and falls because of improper assistance and virtually no therapy for people with severe mental illness.

Since 2011 Illinois has paid the private company Wexford Health Sources well over $1 billion to provide medical care to people in the state’s prisons. But according to an independent monitor, the company has failed to provide proper care, leading to suffering and preventable deaths.

Now, Illinois faces a key decision. Wexford’s 10-year contract with Illinois expired in 2021, but the company continues to provide care in prisons. The state is seeking bids for a new contract.

At a legislative hearing on Monday, state Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, chair of the Appropriations-Public Safety Committee, pointed to a WBEZ story outlining the company’s failures as evidence the state needed to take action.

“We need to look at not doing the same thing over and over that we’ve been doing. That obviously is not working,” Mayfield said.

Camille Bennett, ACLU of Illinois lawyer, testified that when Wexford was first hired, officials said the private company would be better at attracting staff. But now, over 10 years later, nearly half of all medical positions in the prisons are vacant and 80% of physician jobs are unfilled.

“Prescriptions go unrenewed, cancers go undiagnosed. In the worst cases, as everyone here knows, people die painful deaths because of the lack of care,” Bennett said.

The state has known for years about the poor quality of care provided by Wexford. A federal judge determined in 2017 that health care in Illinois prisons was so poor, it violated the U.S. constitution. One former Wexford psychiatrist, who left the company in 2006, told WBEZ he believes staff leave because the company focuses on its bottom line more than providing care.

“Most people who can leave, I believe they leave and a lot of them say, ‘I’m never coming back,’ ” Dr. Rakesh Chandra said.

At Monday’s hearing, Bennett told lawmakers that despite the documented failures, the Department of Corrections showed no sign of changing course.

Latoya Hughes, acting director of the Department of Corrections, declined to answer WBEZ’s questions. Wexford did not testify and has also declined to answer questions, including about how much profit it earns from its contract with Illinois.

Bennett and other civil rights lawyers called on the state to abandon the private for-profit model for prison health care and instead consider providing services via other state agencies, like public university medical centers.

Shannon is a criminal justice reporter. She's also reported on mental health, poverty, labor and climate change.