‘Justice, justice thou shalt pursue’

Why Dentons’ Harold Hirshman fights for mentally ill prisoners

Why Dentons’ Harold Hirshman fights for mentally ill prisoners - Photo by Rena Naltsas
October 2017
By Paul Dailing

Harold Hirshman knows the Bible quote written in big letters on this page. It’s the one that motivates him. It’s the one that spurs him.

Deuteronomy 16:20 isn’t demanding we pursue justice for some. It’s demanding justice for all, even those who broke society’s laws.

“The fact that they’re not pleasant people, the fact they have broken our laws, the fact I might not have them all to dinner is no excuse for ignoring the promise that was made to them,” said Hirshman, a senior counsel at Dentons.

For eight years, Hirshman, now 72, was lead attorney on a pro bono class-action suit looking to improve treatment for mentally ill inmates in Illinois prisons. In May 2016, the Illinois Department of Corrections finalized a settlement that will include an estimated $40 million to build four new treatment units across the state and another $40 million in staff costs.

The suit was brought by Equip for Equality, a nonprofit tasked with serving as legal advocate and watchdog for people with disabilities.

Barry Taylor, vice president for civil rights and systemic litigation at Equip for Equality, said the group selected Hirshman as lead due to the legal acumen exhibited over his now-47-year career and “his willingness to take on cases that are very complicated and also involve people who aren’t necessarily ones people are lining up to represent”

“They’re not necessarily the warm and fuzzy cases, but they’re important,” Taylor said.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

CL: What’s the range of mental health issues in Illinois prisons?

Hirshman: We got a report last week about a women who was eating the light bulbs in her cell, had cut herself to the bone and was getting essentially no medical care or physical care or mental health care. So that’s the one extreme.

Comparable to that is somebody who is sitting in the corner of their cell refusing food, refusing to come out of the cell. The cell is feces-ridden and they aren’t seeing mental health professionals or receiving medication. On the other end of the spectrum are people who can function in the general population but that are suffering from depression, suffering from anxiety and any number of other mental health ailments. So that’s the spectrum.

In the system itself, IDOC acknowledged that it had more than 4,000 what they call seriously mentally ill people. Psychotic, severely depressed, you name it. And they had at least 85 people who needed immediate hospitalization, but they had no hospital.

CL: Since the settlement in May 2016, what are you seeing in terms of progress?

Hirshman: In the first instance, the state has constructed and is about to open a 44-bed mental health hospital at Elgin, the state psychiatric facility there, which gives them the ability to actually hospitalize the most seriously mentally ill. Secondly, the state is about to open a 600-bed facility in Joliet for those prisoners who cannot function within the general population and who need much more intensive care but do not need to be hospitalized.

Those two facilities simply did not exist before the settlement and wouldn’t have existed but for the settlement. In addition, they have added 80 beds at the Logan women’s facility so that there would be a place for — not the most seriously mentally ill women — but the seriously mentally ill women. All that is positive, very positive.

They have also put their entire prison staff through training on how to deal with the mentally ill. They have also reviewed the segregation sentences of mentally ill prisoners and reduced many of them very significantly. And finally they have created more out-of-cell time for prisoners who are in what’s called segregation. Those are both positive things that have happened.

CL: What more would you like to see?

Hirshman: Right now we have received the monitor’s report on his view of what has transpired and how the department has fulfilled or failed to fulfill its obligations under the settlement agreement. We believe that there are serious deficiencies in their performance under the settlement agreement.

CL: Why work with this particular group?

Hirshman: We as a society have made a determination to incarcerate a vast number of people. The Supreme Court has decided those people are entitled to basic medical and mental health care. That’s a commitment that was made in my name as well as in the name of all the citizens of Illinois. To turn your eyes away from the most unfortunate I think is tantamount to doing evil yourself.