PSU protest

Protesters in hospital garb line the hallway into the hearing room at the Legislative Office Building in Concord, as a public hearing gets under way on a bill that calls for the state to build a new forensic psychiatric hospital.

CONCORD — Gov. Chris Sununu is expected to announce an ambitious plan to end the incarceration of certain mental health patients at the state prison in his budget address on Thursday.

At least that’s the hope of people like state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, and others who’ve been pushing for years to end the practice.

Cushing has filed a bill, with Republican co-sponsors, to change the name of the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the state prison to the New Hampshire Secure Psychiatric Hospital, and transfer control from the Department of Corrections to Health and Human Services by July 1.

That move is meant to set the stage for creation of an advisory council to work with DHHS to oversee the planning and construction of a forensic psychiatric hospital or wing, with the plan completed by June 30, 2020, according to the legislation.

“The facility where the Secure Psychiatric Unit is presently housed was never designed to be a therapeutic space to treat people with severe mental illness,” said Cushing, introducing his bill to the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. “It was designed primarily as a corrections unit within the prison.”

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.

Since the 1980s 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.

Patients can be transferred from New Hampshire Hospital, the state psychiatric hospital, to the prison unit if they have become too unruly or too dangerous to themselves and others — a practice Sununu agrees should end.

“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.”

Several of those who spoke in support of Cushing’s bill said they were hanging their hopes on Sununu’s budget address, including Cushing himself. He said he’d reviewed the bill with the governor’s staff and was told it is not in conflict with administration policy.

“The governor in his state of the state address came out and called for an end of this process of criminalizing people with mental illness,” said Cushing in introducing his bill, HB 726. “On Thursday, we’ll hear the governor’s budget address, which hopefully will include some funding for that.”

New Hampshire Hospital CEO Lori Shibinette also sounded an optimistic note.

“The leadership of our state has made it very clear that we need alternatives, and I think leadership is going to come out with a good plan,” she said. “We don’t want to be too quick in these decisions, but be strategic and thoughtful about where we put a secure psychiatric patient.”

Ken Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said his organization supports the transfer of authority over the SPU to Health and Human Services, adding, “We are obviously going to see more on Thursday when the governor’s budget comes out, but ultimately we support that transfer.”

Concerns about the bill are similar to objections that have been raised in the past. State Rep. Ken Snow, a Manchester Democrat, said he agrees with the concept of the bill, but thinks a 2020 timeline for construction plans is too tight.

The state also has other pressing priorities for funding in the mental health system, he said, including the need for more conventional psychiatric beds to end the boarding of mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms, and the statewide shortage of mental health practitioners.

There are 41 patients at the SPU today, of which 32 were transferred to the SPU from the criminal justice system, according to DOC testimony. “The majority of the population in the SPU are incarcerated individuals; the other portion are civilly committed,” said Department of Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks.

DOC officials pointed out that even if that population is transferred to the control of Health and Human Services, the prisons will still need a secure psychiatric unit of some kind, given the wide range of mental health issues they deal with.

There are 41 patients at the SPU today. Of that, 32 are individuals whose transfer to the SPU came from the criminal justice system.