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Lawmakers agree: State must deal with prison psychiatric unit

State House Bureau

May 14. 2018 8:08PM
The Secure Psychiatric Unit at the State Prison in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — The father of a man held at the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the state prison in Concord was in the hearing room on Monday, as House and Senate negotiators debated how to deal with the lock-up for mental health patients who may pose a threat to themselves or others.

In the end, they all agreed that the state eventually has to build a new facility for people who are committed through a civil process, so that it does not continue to confine them like convicted criminals with other prisoners.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, has for years argued that the state must build such a facility, and at least two legislative study committees have recommended as much.

But cost and competing priorities have doomed such efforts over the years, so Cushing this year filed legislation that would at least require the Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU) to be accredited as a psychiatric hospital by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals.

When the bill got to the Senate, it was amended to require accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care as a behavioral health facility. And that’s how it emerged from House-Senate negotiations on Monday.

“We are going to hold for the Senate position,” said Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua. “But we are very sympathetic and very concerned that we have a psychiatric facility with people that are both civilly and criminally committed.”

Avard said lawmakers have a duty to address the problem in a more meaningful way next year. “We need to talk about how we can create another facility that directly solves this problem,” he said, “and make sure these people aren’t sent to prison even though they’ve done nothing wrong other than being sick.”

Hundreds of Avard’s constituents in Hollis and Nashua have signed petitions to Gov. Chris Sununu on behalf of 21-year-old Andrew Butler, once a popular student athlete at Hollis-Brookline High School, now involuntarily confined in the SPU after experiencing the side effects of an unknown drug.

His father, Doug, attended Monday’s hearing in the hope of being able to testify, but the committee did not take any testimony, except from Cushing, the bill’s sponsor.

This isn’t the first time legislative efforts to address the SPU have ended with promises of a new facility.

“Study commissions in 2006 and 2010 both came to the same conclusions, with recommendations for a facility to be built, but the bills did not proceed,” said Cushing.

A committee is expected to meet over the summer to work on details and arrive at a potential price tag. The most likely options are to build a secure forensic unit at New Hampshire Hospital, the state-run psychiatric facility, or to modify an existing state-owned property elsewhere.

“We can solve this in a bipartisan way, and I believe we can do it in the next session,” Avard said.

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