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Sununu backs effort to shut down psychiatric unit at state prison

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 17. 2018 9:28PM
The Secure Psychiatric Unit at the State Prison in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu says he supports efforts to close the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the state prison in Concord and move patients suffering from mental illness to a more therapeutic setting.

The governor’s comments came after a Monday morning event at the State House to launch a student-led campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues in schools.

Sununu was asked about a recent “request for information” put out by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month, regarding “construction and/or operation of a forensic hospital.” The Department of Corrections is also involved in the request.

“We’ve always said that’s a key priority for us,” said Sununu. “We have to find out what is best, whether it’s building a whole new unit or transferring those who are in the SPU into a better facility. Whatever it is, the state has to do something. This is one of those issues that has gone on long enough.”

New Hampshire is one of a handful of states that has no forensic hospital for mentally ill people who become involved in the criminal justice system, or those who have committed no crime but are deemed a danger to themselves and others.

For years they’ve been housed in a unit at the state prison which state officials maintain functions like a unit at the state psychiatric hospital, but with better security. Inmates of the unit in the state prison say they are treated like prisoners, not patients.

“We’re very supportive of whatever actions Health and Human Services is currently taking to make sure we’re moving the ball forward and getting to a viable solution to present to the legislature in short order,” said Sununu. “It’s something we’ve been talking about since day one.”

Seeking information

The request for information posted to the DHHS website on Sept. 4 comes after years of pressure on the state to address the situation.

Legislation was filed in the last session to have the SPU accredited as a psychiatric hospital, but that was downgraded to the less-stringent requirements for accreditation as a behavioral health facility. Several recent cases involving SPU residents have garnered widespread publicity and triggered actions in federal court.

Andrew Butler, 21, of Hollis was committed to the state prison unit last fall, though he wasn’t charged with any crime. In late April, he filed a petition in federal court arguing the practice is unconstitutional and that he had been subject to cruel and unusual punishment. He was released from the SPU and returned home in late June.

Beatrice Coulter and Wanda Duryea have waged a tireless campaign for the past two years to highlight conditions at the unit and press for change, through a group called Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment.

In a Sept. 15 op-ed, they applauded the recent moves by DHHS, writing, “This is a beginning for sure. There are mounting writs of habeas corpus in federal court, unflattering media attention and a plethora of civil rights and constitutional violations around the Secure Psychiatric Unit. This will begin to address a number of those issues.”

When asked if he planned to include funding for a new forensic hospital or unit at the state hospital in his next budget, if re-elected, Sununu said, “I hope so.”

“I think what we are trying to determine now is the ballpark of what that cost would be and what it would look like,” he said. “Assuming we can get there in the next couple of months, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be talking about it as part of the next budget.”

Several options

According to the pitch to potential vendors on the DHHS website, the proposed facility would accommodate approximately 100 individuals, with separate units for men and women.

It would serve individuals now being held at the SPU, certain units of New Hampshire Hospital and the Laconia Designated Receiving Facility (LDRF), formerly the Laconia State School.

The proposed facility would be constructed and operated in accordance with accreditation requirements for acute psychiatric hospitals.

“The population served would include, but not be limited to, those not guilty by reason of insanity; those incompetent to stand trial; committed patients that have engaged in dangerous behaviors that cause them to be a threat to themselves or others; forensic patients that are diagnosed with developmental disability; and all others who would benefit from a comprehensive forensic program,” according to DHHS.

The state is looking for experts that will help decide whether it should build and operate a new facility, renovate an existing one or build an addition.

There is also the question of whether the state should operate the new forensic hospital or hire an outside contractor to staff and run the facility.

“The state is considering all available solutions that would ensure the wellbeing of the patient population,” according to the request for information, with a deadline for submissions of Oct. 5.

The request for information does not commit the state to publish a formal request for proposals or award a contact.

A spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly says she supports the initiative as well.

“Molly believes that people facing mental health challenges should not be treated like criminals,” said Chris Moyer. “She supports finding better ways to ensure they receive the treatment they need, including by building a new mental health facility.”

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