By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – It wasn’t the first time that state Rep. Renny Cushing outlined legislation to stop New Hampshire from housing civilly committed mentally ill people at the state prison for men, but on Wednesday he found his most receptive audience to date.
Speaking in favor of House Bill 726, the Hampton Democrat told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that it’s time to turn the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the men’s prison over to the control of the Department of Health and Human Services as outlined in his bill.
And to require its commissioner to oversee planning and building a new secure multi-purpose forensic psychiatric hospital, one Gov. Chris Sununu has already expressed interest in funding.
“Over the past decade there have been numerous pieces of legislation dealing with the Secure Psychiatric Unit,” said Cushing, who chairs the committee. “None have been acted upon.”
The problem really dates back more than three decades when the unit was opened behind the walls of the state prison in Concord and staffed by corrections officers, Cushing said.
He quoted psychiatrist Dr. Joseph H. Sack’s testimony to a legislative committee in 1985 warning of the problems such an arrangement would make.
“The reason for this concern is that the prime purpose of the Department of Corrections is not treatment and that treatment could be overwhelmed by other concerns,” according to Sack’s written testimony.
Sack was also concerned that because of its location, it would be considered part of the prison.
“Because of the Secure Psychiatric Facility’s proximity to the state prison and even its staffing being from the Department of Corrections, the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society feels that civilly committed patients should not be treated there,” Sack testified.
Presently, some civilly committed patients are housed in the unit with mentally ill prisoners and those deemed incompetent to stand trial and not guilty by reason of insanity.
Sack’s testimony went on to say that patients would feel stigmatized and noted that it could raise constitutional issues and lead to litigation.
Family members turned out to tell the committee what has happened to their loved ones in the Secure Psychiatric Unit.
Doug Butler of Hollis testified that he committed his son, Andrew, 22, to the New Hampshire Hospital unaware that he would be transferred to the prison unit when he acted out due to his illness.
“What we really need is a psychiatric hospital,” Butler said.
His son has been released, but still under the control of the state, said Butler, who lost guardianship of Andrew.
“He’s out of the prison, but in a way, he is still in prison,” Butler said, adding the state forces his son to take strong medications.
“He now sleeps 16 hours a day,” Butler said. Andrew had not been charged with or convicted of a crime, he said.
Butler filed a federal court motion last year when Andrew was held at the Secure Psychiatric Unit arguing he should be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. He was later released to his father.
Paula Mattis, director of the Medical and Forensic Services Division of the Department of Corrections, said the department opposes the bill as written.
The timeframe was a big concern, she said. Making so many changes by July 1 would be very difficult, Mattis said in written testimony.
Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, said he has been to many such hearings looking for a solution to housing mentally ill people at the Secure Psychiatric Unit.
“It’s time for this to happen,” Welch said.
Wanda Duryea, co-founder of Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment, testified that she talks with the patients at the unit and hears stories of mistreatment.
“We believe this bill is a good start,” Duryea said.
Lori A. Shibinette, the CEO of New Hampshire Hospital, also testified.
“The hope is a new forensic unit or hospital would be a facility that combines programming so you have a more therapeutic environment but the security that goes along with the Secure Psychiatric Unit,” Shibinette said.
Rep. Cushing said the bill will also help alleviate the problem of 30 or 40 people a day boarding at general hospitals because there is no room for them at New Hampshire Hospital.
Cushing is looking forward to Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget address on Thursday, noting he has called for the end of criminalizing people with mental illness.
“What I’m really looking forward to is the day when bills dealing with the Secure Psychiatric Unit” no longer come to his committee, but instead are heard by Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs.