Feds asked to probe mental health setup at State Prison -

CONCORD — A state representative and a national patient rights group are calling for a federal investigation into the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the state prison in Concord.

Mental health patients considered a danger to themselves or others are incarcerated in the psychiatric unit at the state prison for men, even if they have committed no crime, because New Hampshire — unlike 47 other states — has no other place to put them.

The complaint, filed Aug. 3 with the U.S. Department of Justice, claims: “The state of New Hampshire is systematically and intentionally violating the Constitution as well as the civil rights and civil liberties of a very vulnerable population.”

The unit was designed to hold individuals involved in the criminal justice system due to mental health issues, such as those deemed guilty by reason of insanity or those awaiting certification as competent to stand trial. But it also houses patients who have done no wrong, if state officials decide they are too dangerous or disruptive to treat at the state hospital.

Democratic state Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton has led efforts in the state Legislature for the past 10 years to address the situation through construction of a secure unit at the state psychiatric hospital, but has been unsuccessful.

A representative of the Treatment Advocacy Center of Arlington, Va., a patient rights group, told the Union Leader in June that a formal grievance with the Civil Rights Division in the federal Department of Justice was in the works.

The complaint to the Special Litigation Section in the U.S. Department of Justice is signed by Cushing; Frankie Berger, director of advocacy for the Treatment Advocacy Center; and Arnie Alpert and Maggie Fogarty, co-directors of the N.H. American Friends Service Committee, a social justice organization.

Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards has said the Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU) is not an ideal situation, but it’s not illegal.

“Currently the agencies operate within the mental health system established by the Legislature,” Edwards said. “If the Legislature chooses to change the operation of the Secured Psychiatric Unit, then the agencies will comply with that change.”

The complaint suggests that creating a secure location for what are called “forensic” mental health patients should have been addressed as part of the $30 million mental health settlement the state agreed to after a class-action lawsuit in 2013.

The settlement does not mention the SPU, and it does not appear to have been part of the federal investigation at the time.

“This is a circumstance that raises concerns about whether the state of New Hampshire was forthcoming about the existence of the SPU with officials investigating its mental health system, as it should be part of any such settlement, but is not,” the complaint states.

The SPU is part of the Department of Corrections and may not have been addressed in a probe that focused on the Department of Health and Human Services, “even though it is clearly a part of the mental health treatment system in New Hampshire,” according to the complaint.

The use of the men’s state prison to house male and female mental health patients has been criticized by two separate legislative study committees, both of which urged the transfer of SPU patients out of the state prison and into a secure unit at the state hospital.

“New Hampshire has shirked its responsibility to provide appropriate treatment for its citizens with mental illness because of a general resistance to spend the funds necessary to do what two separate legislative studies have suggested,” the complaint states.

“It is abundantly clear that the New Hampshire legislature will not voluntarily remedy the situation ... As a result, we urge the Department of Justice to step in.”

State House Bureau

August 11, 2016


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