July 1st, 2016

N.H. prison faces lawsuit for housing mentally ill

The New Hampshire State Prison for Men faces a lawsuit for housing people dealing with severe mental illnesses who have been civilly committed in its Secure Psychiatric Unit.

The Treatment Advocacy Center – an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit that works at a national level to change laws that affect getting treatment for people who have the most severe mental illnesses – said they plan to file soon.

“We’re dealing with a constitutional issue and that is keeping civilly committed people in a prison system,” said Frankie Berger, director of advocacy for the center. “You’re not allowed to do that. These mentally ill people are mixed in with the criminal population. That is completely unacceptable.”

The Secure Psychiatric Unit opened in 1985 and currently houses 58 patients, according to prison spokesman Jeff Lyons. The unit has 60 beds.

Men and women (housed separately) in the unit have a variety of diagnoses, said Heidi Guinen, MSW, deputy director of forensic services at the prison. “Everyone in the unit has at least at some time represented some likelihood of causing harm to themselves or others,” she said.

Berger said that is not reason enough to keep those who have not been convicted of a crime in a prison.

“Everywhere else that isn’t New Hampshire, people who are found to be a danger to themselves or others who have a severe mental illness who are not convicted of a crime – because it is not a crime to be mentally ill – are civilly committed,” said Berger.

“They might need to be put into a hospital involuntarily and receive treatment and medication or some sort of therapeutic restoration to return back to the community. But, you don’t go to a prison because you haven’t been found guilty of anything.”

She said New Hampshire is the only state with a law that allows civilly committed people to be detained in a state prison. The Secure Psychiatric Unit at the prison has flown under the radar for decades, Berger said. “It’s been sort of a quiet shame that has been happening in New Hampshire.”

The issue came to the center’s attention because New Hampshire Rep. Renny Cushing (D) introduced a bill to change the state’s law so that those who are dealing with a mental illness who are civilly committed will receive treatment in a hospital rather than a prison.

Berger says the unit may have a medical facility, but it is not a hospital. “It is not under the oversight of the Department of Health and Human Services. It has not been certified as a hospital,” she said. “It’s under the Department of Corrections. That’s not a place where it’s okay or legal to keep people who have not committed any crime.”

Guinen said there are psychologists and psychiatrists on staff to help those in the unit and that security officers in the unit are trained by the state hospital so they have a good understanding of mental illnesses.

“We are doing the best we can,” she said. “We try to provide the best services to a very difficult population, we have some amazing staff.”

Those in the unit do not mix with the general population, she said, and the main goal is to keep people safe. “It’s the law so we are just doing what we are supposed to be doing.”

Regardless, Berger said it’s a simple issue: “It really comes down to ‘are these people criminals?’” she said. “And, if they are not, you are not allowed to keep them in the prison.”

By Rivkela Brodsky

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