Aug 7, 2016 10:38 AM

Federal complaint filed to stop NH from housing non-criminal mentally ill patients in prison

InDepthNH.org

CONCORD - State Rep. Renny Cushing is ratcheting up efforts to halt the practice of housing severely mentally ill patients who haven’t committed a crime with convicted prisoners at the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the State Prison for Men in Concord.

Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, has joined forces with other advocates, and on Friday they filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division in Washington seeking a full investigation into the longstanding practice.

“The fact that we’re the only state that takes people who haven’t committed a crime or been accused of a crime - but who have a severe mental illness - and put them inside the walls of the state prison commingled with other prisoners who have been convicted of crimes, it’s really a moral outrage,” Cushing said.

Cushing, along with Arnie Alpert and Maggie Fogarty, of the New Hampshire branch of the American Friends Service Committee and the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., also recommended building an appropriate facility to house patients who are considered too dangerous to themselves or others to be treated in the New Hampshire Hospital, the state’s psychiatric facility.

“The state of New Hampshire is systematically and intentionally violating the Constitution, as well as the civil rights and civil liberties of a very vulnerable population of its citizenry,” wrote Frankie Berger, director of advocacy with the Treatment Advocacy Center.

It’s clear that New Hampshire is aware of the violation and has opted to continue rather than pay for appropriate facilities, Berger wrote in the complaint letter.

“It is therefore obvious that New Hampshire will not change this practice without federal intervention. We respectfully ask the Special Litigation Section to open an investigation into New Hampshire's Secure Psychiatric Unit at the Men's Prison in Concord,” the complaint said.

Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said he has not seen the complaint. If an investigation is conducted, the department would cooperate, but would be unable to comment while it is ongoing, Lyons said.

Berger makes the point that patients are sent to the 60-bed Secure Psychiatric Unit for diverse reasons.

“New Hampshire in fact treats all psychiatric patients who require secure placement in the prison's SPU,” Berger wrote.

That includes people deemed incompetent to stand trial, found not guilty by reason of insanity, inmates who require psychiatric treatment, along with those transferred to the prison from the state hospital because they are considered a danger to themselves or others.

“It is completely unacceptable to place a forensic patient in need of a psychiatric hospital bed in the Secure Psychiatric Unit; the facility is not a hospital and does not provide the protections or care afforded in a hospital. It is not subject to the Patients' Bill of Rights that any other hospital in New Hampshire would be,” Berger wrote.

Berger noted the Legislature’s past failures to fund a new unit at New Hampshire Hospital or to build a new facility.

“Bills have been introduced to prohibit this practice, but none have passed,” Berger said. It always comes down to the Legislature being unwilling to spend the money, Berger said.

Mentally ill patients at the Secure Psychiatric Unit are treated the same as mentally ill prisoners who have been convicted of serious crimes.

“They are issued prison numbers, their visitors have to go through the same security process as those visiting incarcerated individuals, and the 'treatment' that they receive is not analogous in the slightest way to the level of care received in an inpatient psychiatric hospital,” Berger wrote.

Women are housed in the Secure Psychiatric Unit despite it being located in a men's prison. Corrections officers staff the facility, and there is commingling in various public spaces of individuals convicted of crimes with civilly committed patients, the complaint says.

“Officials are aware that this arrangement is unconstitutional and have known that it could be the subject of litigation since at least 2010,” Berger wrote.

The Special Litigation Section entered into a settlement after previously investigating the mental health treatment system in New Hampshire, but did not include the Secure Psychiatric Unit.

“This is a circumstance that raises concerns … about whether the state of New Hampshire was forthcoming about the existence of the SPU with officials investigating its mental health system, as it should be part of any such settlement but is not,” Berger wrote.

The complaint recommends that the Secure Psychiatric Unit be removed from the Men's Prison in Concord and be relocated to a new, secure facility or wing within the New Hampshire Hospital. It also recommends transferring control of the Secure Psychiatric Unit from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Cushing, who serves on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said after 30 years, it’s time for a change.

“Unfortunately for 30 years New Hampshire has been an outlier when it comes to the treatment of people with severe mental illness,” Cushing said.

He believes it is the Legislature’s responsibility to take action. Cushing hopes the study committee reviewing legislation that he submitted last session to stop the practice will recommend building an appropriate facility.

“It’s a source of shame for the state of New Hampshire and we should put an end to it,” Cushing said.

InDepthNH.org is a nonprofit investigative news website in New Hampshire. For more information about stories or becoming a corporate sponsor, email Nancy West at nancywestnews@gmail.com.

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