Experts say that the number of Illinois county jail detainees filing civil rights lawsuits has decreased over the past decade, a trend that is not beneficial for detainees’ rights.

According to a Chicago Reporter analysis of federal court records, an estimated 97 civil rights lawsuits were filed by detainees against Illinois county jails or sheriffs from October 2007 to November 2009. The lawsuits affect 27 of the state’s 102 counties and are filed at a rate of about one for every 500 of the state’s near01ly 45,500 detainees.

The most common subject of these lawsuits is inadequate medical care. But experts say that many medical lawsuits don’t get very far in the justice system.

The standards for inmate litigation have become more difficult with legislation and restrictions on lawyers since 1996—making the mythical “jailhouse lawyer” a thing of the past.

Some experts said there would be more lawsuits if it weren’t difficult for detainees to file complaints. Inmates find that there are sometimes punitive consequences, and detainees often have slim chances of winning, said Janine Hoft, a lawyer with People’s Law Office in Chicago.

A 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case, Lewis v. Casey, reaffirmed what was originally stated in the 1977 Bounds v. Smith case, that jail and prison administrators must “assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”

But the Prison Litigation Reform Act—passed that same year—requires detainees to resolve their claims first through jail grievance processes, exhausting every effort there and meeting the processes’ high burden of proof. The bar is so high that many cases can’t pass it. For example, to win compensatory damages, an inmate must show a physical injury. This is difficult when inmates file lawsuits for strip searches that took place as a punitive measure against a detainee, or in cases when detainees are locked in isolation for extended periods of time. In these cases, detainees would not win unless they proved physical injury, said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News.

Some grievance procedures are so complicated that detainees would rather accept the abuse than file a complaint, Hoft said.

If a detainee gets past the grievance process, they are not guaranteed success. When a complaint is filed, a detainee’s odds of winning a lawsuit are slim—particularly because few have lawyers, said Andrew Bequette, a lawyer who runs the Federal Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Lawyers may be reluctant to get involved because the cases require a lot of time and don’t cover the costs of labor, mileage and court filing fees, Bequette said. Plus, defendants—including individual officers and police departments—are prepared to fight for lengthy periods of time and rarely settle. They don’t want to “open the floodgates” by making inmates believe that it’s easy for prisoner litigation to end in success, he said.

Though there were dozens of civil rights violation cases filed in Illinois, the numbers could be low. The number of lawsuits filed in any state severely underestimates the number of violations that merit a lawsuit, Wright said. “Based on my observations, for every case that gets filed there’s probably five or 10 meritorious cases that don’t get filed,” he added.

Januari Smith, communications manager for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said that the Office of Jail and Detention Standards does not routinely track inmate lawsuits. The office learns about them when the plaintiff seeks reports about the jails that relate to their lawsuits. Because no one is actively monitoring these allegations, a lawsuit is sometimes a detainee’s only alternative for stopping jailhouse abuse, Hoft said.

According to the Reporter’s analysis of lawsuits, the most commonly alleged civil rights violation in Illinois is inadequate medical care. Roughly one quarter of the cases examined, 23 of the 97, allege insufficient or inadequate medical care in county jails.

Providing health care in county jails is difficult because, experts said, some facilities are reluctant to pay the cost for quality care. In addition, there are high rates of mental illness among detainees, and a lack of proper facilities and personnel to screen detainees when they’re first admitted, Hoft said. In California, roughly 80 prisoners die annually of medical neglect, Wright said.

The two categories that had the second-most allegations were due process in court and excessive use of force, followed by due process in jail. In some of the latter cases, detainees alleged that jails violated procedures for inmate discipline, grievances and property transfers.

Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association, said jails are understaffed, overcrowded and underfunded, though functional. “We’ve got minimum standards, and most of the jails exceed those standards,” he said.

In fact, Illinois jail standards for facilities, supervision and other types of jail administration are some of the most stringent in the nation, Hoft said. The problem is that those standards are not enforced, she added.

“It just takes a very strong personality to file a lawsuit, particularly when you’re a disempowered individual,” Hoft said. “I think most people who are incarcerated turn the other cheek in some ways.”

Kayla Bensing, Tara García Mathewson, R. Thomas and Kelly Virella helped research this article.

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