At the end of this story, please find a number of articles InDepthNH.org has reported about the Secure Psychiatric Unit. Sign up for our free newsletter here.
By Nancy West, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The mood among lawmakers has changed dramatically over the last three years that InDepthNH.org has been investigating the state’s decades-long practice of locking up mentally ill people in the prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime.
In the past, some lawmakers said it was less than ideal, but the best New Hampshire could do for those who were civilly committed, but deemed too dangerous to themselves or others to be housed at the New Hampshire Hospital, the state’s psychiatric hospital.
Others said they saw no problem commingling mentally ill people at the prison psych unit who hadn’t been convicted of a crime with mentally ill criminals, although opponents call it unconstitutional.
Ken Snow, a former state Democratic state representative from Manchester, last year echoed the then-common sentiment that the mental health system in New Hampshire is so deeply troubled – with many people waiting in local hospital emergency rooms every day for a psych bed – that the relatively small number of people at SPU who are not being held because of a crime will have to wait. There are anywhere from five to 16 such patients locked up in prison on any given day, according to corrections officials.
It would be too costly to build a new facility, they said. Snow took it further.
“It’s a pretty good facility,” Snow said. “If you listen to the family members, it sounds like a den of iniquity, but I have not seen that.”
Now, a number of lawmakers have joined Rep. Renny Cushing’s crusade to end the practice. Cushing had been a mostly lone voice until recently. The Hampton Democrat believes the shift in mood was caused by the many family members who spoke out at legislative hearings about how their mentally ill loved ones are mistreated at the Secure Psychiatric Unit. He also believes the increased media attention, driven largely by IndepthNH.org, helped raise public awareness.
And then there is a young man named Andrew Butler of Hollis. His community raised money for him, signed a petition for his release and contacted their elected officials.
“Still, I don’t want to raise people’s expectations,” Cushing said. He’s seen past study commissions and recommendations derailed, but he is definitely working with other lawmakers to bring new legislation during the next session to finally stop what he calls “New Hampshire’s dirty little secret of putting people in prison for having mental illness.”
Andrew Butler, 21, of Hollis, put a human face to the problem when his lawyer Sandra Bloomenthal filed a petition in U.S. District Court two months ago demanding he be transferred to a certified mental health facility for treatment, not prison, because he hasn’t committed a crime.
Now, Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua who also represents Hollis, insists something must be done comparing the Secure Psychiatric Unit a horror movie. Avard recently interviewed Andrew’s father, Douglas Butler, on his cable show Speaking with the Senator.
Andrew Butler was a popular star athlete at Brookline Hollis High School before going on to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, so beloved in fact, that his supporters and human rights activists recently staged a two-mile walk from the prison to the courthouse demanding his release.
And just as the mood has shifted in the Legislature, it has changed in the Department of Corrections as well, according to his father.
Andrew is expecting to be released in three weeks, a major shift from what he was told before speaking publicly about his son’s problems. “They said they could keep him forever,” Butler said.
Butler hopes it is true that his son will be released soon, but is worried. He says the state is still force-medicating Andrew and since the state removed him as Andrew’s guardian, he has no power to make decisions regarding his son’s medication.
During a recent interview with InDepthNH.org, Andrew Butler also said he expected to be home with his father soon. Andrew said he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and was prescribed Depakote and other medications. His problems started last July after taking the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin, Andrew said.
“He’s doing better,” Douglas Butler said on Sunday after his second contact visit with Andrew on Saturday since he was transferred from the New Hampshire Hospital to the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the prison in January.
“They want him out of there now. They don’t like the publicity,” Butler said.
He wants Andrew home, too, and plans to bring him to the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., for a second opinion.
In the visiting room Saturday, Andrew stood up causing the corrections officer to yell at him to sit down, Butler said. It’s sitting by as his son is being treated as a prisoner that most upsets him.
Andrew Butler told InDepthNH.org that he has been tasered and pepper sprayed at the unit, but remains cheerful even being locked up with mentally ill convicted criminals.
“I met some really good people who killed people before and I would never have guessed they did anything like that. Everyone seems pretty chill,” Andrew said.
Bloomenthal argued in the habeas corpus petition that Butler is being denied his Constitutional rights by being locked up in prison without a criminal charge or conviction.
“His present need for secure psychiatric care is not at issue. At issue is Andrew Butler’s cruel treatment and false imprisonment in a non-accredited and non-licensed facility which is prison and not a hospital. The Petitioner seeks transfer to a real licensed and accredited hospital,” Bloomenthal wrote.
State officials have said it is legal to lock up civilly committed individuals with convicted criminals who are mentally ill. Senior Assistant Attorney General Lynmarie Cusack argued the court should dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction because the Secure Psychiatric Unit isn’t a prison and because Andrew lacks standing.
Bloomenthal disagreed in an objection and both sides have until June 11 to file further briefs.
“His situation is extraordinary. He is incarcerated in a prison when he should be hospitalized. The State of New Hampshire refuses to provide adequate medical care for the Petitioner and has transferred this seriously ill person from a licensed and accredited hospital, New Hampshire Hospital, to a prison that is not a licensed and accredited hospital in violation of Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act,” Bloomenthal wrote.
New Hampshire has refused to provide adequate care since at least 1986 for its most needy mentally ill patients and has locked them in the State Prison for Men, she wrote.
“This includes locking mentally ill women in the Men’s Prison. Also, patients with developmental disabilities are locked away in the prison as well. The civilly committed are exposed to criminally convicted inmates,” Bloomenthal wrote. “The State of New Hampshire condones this barbaric treatment of the mentally ill and has done so for over 30 years.”
She said the state’s motion to dismiss seeks to rely on a myth that those in the unit are not in a prison. “That is belied by the fact that the unit is confined in the prison, is guarded by correction officers. Patients are forced to wear inmate uniforms and are given inmate identification numbers. Patients are locked in cages falsely named ‘treatment booths,'” Bloomenthal wrote.
Below find some of the stories Nancy West has reported about the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the men’s prison in Concord, including a look at how the rest of the country deals with mentally ill patients who are a danger to themselves or others that was made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.