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By Nancy West, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The Disability Rights Center is monitoring the rights and safety of individuals with mental illness who are locked up at the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men, according to DRC staff attorney Andrew Milne.
“We monitor throughout the state,” Milne said, “but certainly the Secure Psychiatric Unit has come up a number of times in complaints about conditions there.”
The monitoring could result in a decision to conduct an investigation, depending on the availability of resources, Milne said.
There are a variety of patients at the Secure Psychiatric Unit who have not been convicted of and sometimes have not been charged with a criminal offense. They are housed with convicted criminals who have mental illness.
“We do have concerns about the appropriateness of that setting for individuals with mental illness – in particular individuals who have not been convicted of any crime who are nevertheless placed there in a prison setting under the Department of Corrections’ control, which we question the therapeutic value of and the effectiveness of the mental health treatment,” Milne said.
He singled out as an example patients who are admitted to New Hampshire Hospital for psychiatric treatment but are then transferred to the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the prison without ever having a criminal proceeding.
The Department of Corrections declined to comment.
The process of incarcerating mentally ill patients who haven’t been convicted of a crime in New Hampshire has been controversial since it started decades ago. The most recent attempts by state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, and Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment to halt the practice have failed.
But Cushing submitted new legislation this session that would require the Secure Psychiatric Unit to be accredited as a psychiatric hospital. A hearing on House Bill 1565 will be held Tuesday, March 27 in Room 101 at the Legislative Office Building in Concord at 1:45 p.m.
“I’m glad the DRC is monitoring the situation at SPU. I hope they come testify at the hearing on Tuesday. The situation is just untenable,” Cushing said.
In a separate matter, the Disability Rights Center filed a federal lawsuit last month seeking access to the death investigation of Phillip Borcuk, 34, who died while being held at the Residential Treatment Unit, which is upstairs from the Secure Psychiatric Unit, at the State Prison for Men.
Milne said the Department of Corrections has turned over some, but not all records of Borcuk’s death investigation and the federal court case continues.
The Residential Treatment Unit is described as a specialized unit for inmates with mental illness who are unable to function in the general inmate population.
In news release last month, the DRC cited news reports that said Borcuk was mentally ill and died Dec. 6, 2017 alone in his cell due to self-injurious behavior at the State Prison for Men in Concord.
Borcuk was admitted from Sullivan County Superior Court into the Department of Correction custody in 2012 for charges of operating after being certified as a Habitual Offender, Theft by Unauthorized Taking and Assault by Prisoner. His parole eligibility date was Dec. 5, 2018 with a maximum release date of Dec. 5, 2019.
Disability Rights Center is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers for people with disabilities in New Hampshire. In the Borcuk lawsuit, the DRC sought an injunction against the department’s interference with a federally authorized investigation in violation of the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act.
The PAIMI Act authorizes DRC to investigate suspected abuse and neglect of individuals with mental illness and obligates facilities such as prisons to cooperate by promptly producing requested records.
A separate death
The estate of Charles Mealer, who died unexpectedly at age 47 at the Secure Psychiatric Unit on June 25, 2015, is suing the Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit claims Mealer’s death was caused by “acute amitriptyline intoxication,” a drug he was being prescribed at the time.
Mealer, who had been transferred in and out of the Secure Psychiatric Unit several times since he was sentenced to state prison in 2011 on two counts of felonious sexual assault, had a long psychiatric history which included suicidal ideation and several suicide attempts, according to the lawsuit filed by Manchester attorney Larry Vogelman.