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By Nancy West, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — A federal judge has ordered the speedy release of records to the Disability Rights Center for its investigation into the death of a mentally ill inmate at the Residential Treatment Unit at the state prison for men.
The Disability Rights Center is investigating the possible role of abuse and neglect in inmate Phillip Borcuk’s death on Dec. 6, 2017, according to DRC attorney Andrew Milne.
The DRC investigation is also focusing on questions about the adequacy of staffing on the unit and staff use of force and restraint, Milne said.
The investigation also involves the adequacy of mental health treatment at the Residential Treatment Unit, the appropriateness of staff training and how the staff responds to individuals in mental health crisis, Milne said.
“These are questions we are reviewing. We have not made any conclusions because we are still in the midst of our investigation,” Milne said. “It should go smoothly now with the court’s order to make the department turn over records within days, not weeks or months.”
The DRC sued Department of Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks in federal court claiming state prison authorities failed to produce requested documents about Borcuk’s death in a timely manner.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty ruled in favor of the Disability Rights Center saying in fact the Department of Corrections’ delays caused irreparable harm. McCafferty laid out time frames ranging from two to 10 days for the department to turn over documents.
Milne said: “Because of the delays, our right to investigate and the effectiveness of our investigation have been compromised.” He added that the investigation may never get a full picture of what happened to Borcuk because of the delays.
Borcuk, 34, of Cornish, was admitted from Sullivan County Superior Court into 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, according to the department.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Ross, who represents the Department of Corrections said, “We had already provided substantial documents to the Disability Rights Center and although we do not believe an injunction was necessary, the state intends to full comply with the court’s order.”
After Borcuk’s death, the department issued a news release stating that he was alone in his cell and died due to “self-injurious behavior.” His parole eligibility date was Dec. 5, 2018, with a maximum release date of Dec. 5, 2019.
The Department of Corrections had primarily claimed that it didn’t have the staff to provide the documents in a timely manner and also make sure staff and residents were safe and secure, Milne said.
“Our response was that they need to be able to operate their facility ensuring staff and resident safety and comply with our federally authorized investigation,” Milne said.
The Disability Rights Center is a statewide non-profit organization that is federally authorized to investigate possible violations 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.
For now, the DRC investigation involves only the death of Borcuk, but depending on what is found could be expanded to include other residents of the Residential Treatment Unit and the Secure Psychiatric Unit who may be at risk of abuse or neglect, Milne said.
The Residential Treatment Unit is a specialized unit for inmates with mental illness who are unable to function in the general inmate population. The Secure Psychiatric Unit houses mentally ill inmates and patients who haven’t been convicted of a crime, but are considered too dangerous to be housed at the New Hampshire Hospital, the state’s psychiatric hospital.