By Nancy West, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – When registered nurse Beatrice Coulter resigned just four days after being hired at the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the men’s prison, little did she know that her disgust with the state’s treatment of the mentally ill men and women housed there would someday give rise to reform.
Coulter of Concord teamed up with Wanda Duryea, a criminal justice reform advocate from Farmington, three years ago. They joined forces with state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, who’s been fighting for change at the prison psych unit for years and activist Arnie Alpert. Now, it looks like reform may well be on the horizon.
The state is looking into building a 100-bed forensic psychiatric hospital to replace the prison unit and take the pressure off hospital emergency rooms where patients sometimes wait for weeks for a psychiatric bed. Gov. Chris Sununu and his Democratic opponent, Molly Kelly, both recently voiced support for the project after decades of inaction. Rep. Cushing is already drafting new legislation.
“I never saw this as a win or lose situation. What I saw this as was exactly that – reform,” said Coulter, a nurse since 1981 who has never before been an activist.
Back in May of 2015, Coulter left the new prison job horrified that women were being held at the men’s prison, furious that civilly committed individuals who hadn’t committed a crime were locked up with mentally ill convicted criminals and stunned by the telephone booth sized cages used as “therapy booths.”
“I had never seen anything like that, the oxymoron, a cage being called a ‘therapy booth.’ It was not a hospital,” Coulter said.
What changed involved people like Eric Largy of Nashua speaking publicly about the treatment he received at the prison unit, Coulter said.
Largy and family members whose loved ones were held in the unit started gathering at meetings and filling legislative hearings.
At first, they were met with disbelieving lawmakers who talked only about the costs of change, but the advocates persisted. The Probate Court hearings were usually held behind closed doors and Corrections officials were reluctant to provide information about the people held there.
Largy isn’t otpimistic.
“I feel it’s more of a legal strategy,” Largy said. “They are doing this because they have to. The women’s prison took 20 years. They are trying to appease people. I don’t believe New Hampshire is really serious about this.”
Largy was the first to open his confidential Probate Court hearings to InDepthNH.org. Largy was deemed not competent to stand trial and released after being locked up for more than seven years. He successfully fought the state, which was seeking another five-year commitment.
“These families were given a voice and they demanded to be treated with respect,” Coulter said.
Rep. Cushing says he is cautiously optimistic. He has submitted reform legislation since 2010 and been disappointed each time.
“I definitely think witnesses, the people held in SPU, and their bravery speaking out pricked the public’s conscience,” Cushing said.
The state has put out a Request for Information to build a 100-bed forensic psychiatric hospital for patients currently receiving care at the Secure Psychiatric Unit, the New Hampshire Hospital, both in Concord, and the Laconia Designated Receiving Facility.
“The envisioned facility would consolidate forensic care within one location and provide a comprehensive program for the forensic patients,” according to the request posted on the Department of Health and Human Services’ website.
The population served would include civilly committed individuals found not guilty by reason of insanity, incompetent to stand trial, patients deemed too dangerous to themselves or others to be housed in the state’s psychiatric hospital, forensic patients that are also diagnosed with developmental disability, and others who would benefit from a comprehensive forensic program.
Cushing also credited a flurry of federal lawsuits filed in recent months complaining about the lack of mental healthcare and mistreatment such as the use of tasers and pepper spray on patients at the prison psych unit.
There have been a half dozen petitions filed demanding Secure Psychiatric Unit patients be transferred to a licensed psychiatric hospital, a federal lawsuit alleging patient mistreatment including tasering, and patient families fighting the state’s attempts to take away their guardianship.
Andrew Butler’s case also drew public attention as the popular former high school athlete’s friends rallied around him. The 21-year-old from Hollis was released from the Secure Psychiatric Unit in June, but is still under the control of the state because he was originally civilly committed to the New Hampshire Hospital for two years. He had not committed a crime, but was transferred from the hospital to the prison unit after a violent episode.
Cushing’s proposed legislation would transfer the Secure Psychiatric Unit from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Health and Human Services, directing the Commissioner to oversee development of plans and construction of a secure forensic psychiatric hospital.
It directs the formation of an advisory commission to include department heads, lawmakers, advocacy groups and members of the public, and includes the relatively new group Advocates for the Ethical Treatment of Mental Illness.
Cushing asked that state Sens. Kevin Avard and Martha Hennessey be added as co-sponsors along with Reps. Peter Schmidt and Mary Beth Walz.
Advocate Wanda Duryea, too, is cautiously optimistic. She talks by phone almost every day with patients who are being held in the Secure Psychiatric Unit and their families.
Duryea is concerned about how long it will take to fund and build a new facility and what will happen to the patients in the meantime. She listens daily to their complaints of mistreatment.
“This is the second time I was told by a patient that the guards took away his colored pencils as a punishment,” Duryea said.
Mentally ill and developmentally disabled people are sometimes incapable of following the guards’ orders, she said.
“That’s all he enjoys in the world, his colored pencils,” Duryea said.