Fight for the innocent mentally ill in prison

This is a terrible secret. The men’s prison in Concord houses a small number of mentally ill patients who have never been convicted of a crime. They are deemed too dangerous to live at the State Hospital, where they might hurt other patients. This difficult group does not belong at the prison either. Many of them cannot defend themselves from hardened criminals. 

Prison and State Hospital officials admit every three or four years at a legislative hearing that they are poorly serving these folks who do not belong in either place. This year Rep. Rene Cushing sponsored HB 602 to pull those patients out of the prison. Sadly, he had no suitable place to send them. Ideally, they would have gone out of state, if any beds were free. That would have been an expensive remedy, without any funding available.

The bill also earmarked $200,000 for a study commission to develop plans for a proper New Hampshire facility. The bill generated the usual sympathy from lawmakers, who killed it for lack of money in a tight budget year. Budget years are always too tight to deal with mentally ill folks who lack a proper place for treatment.

Officials will soon be asking lawmakers to reissue the longstanding rule that authorizes the Division of Mental Health to warehouse and endanger an unpopular population in a bad place. We suggest you oppose the rule as a terrible policy. That won’t solve the problem or keep the rule from taking effect, but it will delay the process. And it will force people to address all of the questions we raise. 

It is my understanding the Feds are aware of the issue and may be planning litigation to force the state to do the right thing, whatever the cost. That is the only solution we can reasonably expect.

Catherine Bernhard (271-9374) is the rules coordinator in charge of the project. Her email address is catherine.bernhard@dhhs.state  Here is a link to the proposed rule.

The hearing is not scheduled yet, but it will be in the Legislative Office Building. We’ll let you know the date as soon as we know it.

By Chris Dornin, co-founder, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform,