Our Turn: State must stop conflating mental illness with criminality

Published: 5/2/2017 12:10:14 AM

We at Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment are very pleased to see earnest discussions have commenced in the Legislature about expanding capacity at New Hampshire Hospital. While the proposal is reactive and not the result of a cogent strategic plan, it is a step in the right direction.

Now that the conversation has begun, it is time to also include the Secure Psychiatric Unit in this conversation. The opportunity to end the practice of sending non-adjudicated civilly committed individuals to the New Hampshire State Prison should now be upon us.

While the actual number of how many individuals are transferred to the prison appears to be influenced by who is doing the reporting , the fact there is any number to report is too many. This primitive practice has been part of the clinical culture in New Hampshire for decades. It violates constitutional protections as well as violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is inconsistent with well understood treatment principles.

Now is the time for the state to not only come into compliance with the law, but abandon the mythology that SPU is a forensic hospital. It is not. It is simply a place in the prison where behavioral health treatment is provided by a contracted vendor. SPU does not satisfy or meet any of the standards required for accreditation. SPU is not subject to review by any outside agency as it does not qualify for reimbursement. The Department of Corrections is also not subject to the administrative rules, contributing to a facility that has little accountability or transparency.

This practice has created two classes of civilly committed individuals in New Hampshire. Those who are treated at an accredited facility and those sent to the prison. These individuals become de facto prisoners under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. The disparity of treatment is evident.

Women are also transferred into SPU. In September 2016 families members who have loved ones housed in SPU testified before the Legislature alleging abuse and neglect. In 2008 a civil suit was settled after a corrections officer sexually assaulted several women housed in SPU. That individual was later convicted and is now serving a prison sentence. A complaint was filed with United States Department of Justice regarding the practice in 2016 by the Treatment Advocacy Center. We should no longer tolerate such conditions.

As an examination of the mental health system moves forward, the doors to SPU need to finally be closed for those who have never committed a crime. Rather, it is time to examine the resources New Hampshire Hospital requires to satisfy its core mission and treat all the citizens of New Hampshire needing acute psychiatric care. Please make your voice known and let your state senator and representative know this is unacceptable and must be stopped.

The state must no longer conflate mental illness with criminality. Then and only then will the current examination of our mental health system be both comprehensive and compassionate.

(Beatrice Coulter and Wanda Duryea are the founders of Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment.)

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