By Nancy West
CONCORD – One woman told lawmakers that her son’s toenails grew so long while he was at the state prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit that they curled under his feet and dug into his skin.
Another woman, Shelly Raza, spoke about her grown son, Corey Peterson, being violently “taken down” to the ground for touching a corrections officer. Corey pulled out all of his fingernails and toenails while at the unit, and Raza still doesn’t know how he could have done that.
Neither mentally ill patient had committed a crime, but both were held at SPU because they were considered too dangerous to themselves or others to be housed at the New Hampshire Hospital, the state’s main psychiatric facility.
“(Corey) recently spent 23 months in isolation in the Secure Psychiatric Unit,” Raza said. “He never committed a crime.”
The mothers were among a standing-room only crowd at the Legislative Office Building at a subcommittee meeting on Wednesday. The subcommittee voted to not recommend legislation, House Bill 1541, that would prohibit imprisoning mentally ill people at SPU who hadn’t committed a crime.
Only after the vote did the subcommittee let members of the packed audience share their stories about loved ones at SPU.
Rep. Ken Snow, D-Manchester, who opposed the legislation Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, submitted during the last session as being too narrow, said as a work session, the subcommittee didn’t have to take public comments at all.
The subcommittee will report back to the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee.
A federal civil rights complaint has been filed seeking an investigation into the practice of commingling non-criminal patients with mentally ill patients at SPU who have committed serious crimes such as murder, rape, assault and robbery.
It’s been all about the money it would take to fix the problem for more than a decade, Cushing said.
“I think the failure is not with the people in the Department of Corrections,” Cushing said. “I don’t think it’s with the Department of Health and Human Services. The failure and the reason this condition exists is because of the Legislature,” Cushing said.
A patient with any other disease that was a bit challenging wouldn’t be taken to an unaccredited hospital, Cushing said.
“It is untenable for the state of New Hampshire to take people with mental illness who are a bit of challenge and put them away inside an incarcerated setting and wish for the best,” Cushing said. “The responsibility rests with us.”
Rep. Snow acknowledged that commingling patients wasn’t ideal, but said only five to 10 non-criminal patients at any given time are held at the prison unit.
Snow said, however, there is a bigger problem because anywhere from 30 to 60 mentally ill people on a given day are being “illegally, unethically warehoused” in hospital emergency rooms because there are not enough beds available at New Hampshire Hospital.
Snow praised the staff and treatment at the Secure Psychiatric Unit, which is run by the Department of Corrections, comparing it favorably to the New Hampshire Hospital, which is under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Paula Mattis, director of Medical and Forensic Services at the Department of Corrections, spoke near the end of the session encouraging family members to make sure they tell officials about their concerns. Snow had high praise as well for Mattis.
“I’m not suggesting we ignore this legislation. All I’m saying is the problem is much broader than this. Let’s look at the entire problem.”
Snow recommended a study commission be set up to look at the big picture, at all of the problems in the state’s mental health system.
Eric Largy, 49, spent five and a half years at the Secure Psychiatric Unit after being deemed incompetent to stand trial for allegedly beating his father, retired Nashua Police Chief Clifton Largy, in 2009. Eric Largy was re-indicted in May on kidnapping and first-degree assault charges and is free on personal recognizance bail awaiting trial.
Largy spoke out at the work session and offered to meet with anyone who wants more facts about what goes on at SPU. He detailed how his health deteriorated at SPU because of the poor diet and lack of opportunity for exercise and activity.
Largy said he complained to the staff that he wasn’t feeling well one night at about 7:30 and received no medical care until then next morning, which was Thanksgiving, when he was taken by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center where he underwent a an aortic dissection. He disagreed with Snow’s positive view of SPU.
“What I see up here going on is a lot of intellectual dishonesty and mere ignorance,” Largy said. “What I’ve seen at SPU is totally different than what you guys are representing here.”
Largy said he wanted to put a human face on people who are held at the Secure Psychiatric Unit. Shelly Raza did, also. Raza displayed a large cardboard collage she made of photos of her son.
“This is 97166,” Raza said setting up the collage of photos of her son at all different ages.
“He’s not just a number. OK? He has a family that loves him.” One large photo shows her grown son as a healthy, smiling, handsome little boy.
Raza said even though Department of Corrections told InDepthNH.org that they weren’t going to charge her criminally for taking a cellphone picture of him with balloons on his birthday Jan. 31, they are still holding her phone. Visitors are not allowed to bring their cellphones into SPU.
“They are still hanging this felony over my head,” Raza said.
Officials told her she could get her phone if she agreed to unlock it and allow them to examine its contents. “Why should they go through my phone?” she asked.
The Secure Psychiatric Unit is not a hospital, Raza said. She would not be facing felony charges for taking a picture of her son at a hospital on his birthday, and she would be able to see him more than two hours a week through glass, Raza said.
“If they want to arrest me for taking a picture of my son, then arrest me. I am sick of being harassed by the Department of Corrections,” Raza said. Her son is doing much better and was just moved to transitional housing on the grounds of the state hospital, Raza said.
Rep. Pam Gordon, D-Portsmouth, was the only subcommittee member to vote in favor of Cushing’s legislation to prohibit commingling non-criminal patients with people who had committed serious crimes.
“I’m appalled,” Gordon said. “They are treating mentally ill people like prisoners. That’s an issue.”
Even though it is a small number of people, it is simply not right, she said.
“I think we can do better than this,” Gordon said.