Time To End New Hampshire’s Shameful Practice Of Putting Individuals With Mental Illnesses Into A Maximum Security Prison To Save Money

Andrew Butler with his father, Douglas. Family photo from InDepthNH.org website.

(6-4-18) Without being charged or having committed a crime, can you be incarcerated in a maximum security U.S. prison, kept in a cell 23 hours per day, held in solitary confinement, shot with a taser by correctional officers, and locked up indefinitely if you are an American citizen?

The answer is “yes,” if you have a mental illness and live in New Hampshire.

Frankie Berger, the Treatment Advocacy Center’s director of advocacy, tipped me off last week about the case of Andrew Butler.

“The state does not have a secure wing on their state hospital,” she summarized in an email, “so people who are civilly committed as a danger to themselves or others – people who have not committed or been charged with any crimes, male and female – are being sent to the men’s maximum security prison. They are given prison numbers and uniforms, treated like prisoners, and the whole thing is unconstitutional.”

How is this possible today?

Because the New Hampshire legislature doesn’t want to pay the cost of creating a secure unit in its state mental hospital, so it passed legislation in the 1980s making it legal to send anyone with a mental illness who becomes psychotic and violent to the state’s maximum security prison – even though there is no accredited mental hospital unit there to treat them.

The most recent case to shine a spotlight on this shameful practice involves Andrew Butler, a 21 year-old who was studying chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute when he began acting oddly.

His father, Douglas Butler, told InDepthNH.org, that his son might have used an illegal drug during a trip to Vermont in August last year that prompted his erratic behavior. He was civilly committed to the New Hampshire (mental)  Hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Group therapy booths at the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the New Hampshire Prison for Men. Photo by Nancy West, InDeptNH.org

His father doesn’t believe that diagnosis and claims the hospital gave his son anti-psychotic medication that caused him to begin hitting other patients.

Nancy West, a writer who interviewed the senior Butler for New Hampshire’s Center for Public Interest Journalism (InDepthNH.org) quoted the senior Butler as saying:

“He was never violent before that. He always does well in school and sports and really enjoys people. He’s very social.”

Last week, a court hearing was held in his case where his attorney, Sandra Bloomenthal, argued the state legislature’s practice of imprisoning individuals simply because they are mentally ill should be stopped. She says her client has been:

“Held as a mental health patient without being in an accredited hospital, denied contact visits with his father, denied contact visits with his attorney, and is forced to wear prison clothing. He is locked down 23 hours a day. He has been tasered. The treatment he has received is cruel and unusual punishment without having been convicted of a crime and with no pending criminal process.”

A judge is reviewing her argument.

How have New Hampshire legislators reacted to the Butler case?

They’ve doubled down on this cruel policy.

The same day, his attorney filed a writ questioning the practice, lawmakers gutted legislation introduced by Robert Rennie Cushing from Rockingham that would have required the prison to become accredited as a psychiatric hospital if patients with mental illnesses continued to be housed there. Cushing told writer West:

“The crime is that our most vulnerable are held captive in prison instead of being treated in a hospital, and every legislator who turns their back on and ignores this outrage is complicit.”

By their actions, New Hampshire legislators have revealed that they value money above the care, dignity and constitutional rights of their fellow citizens with mental illnesses.

So where is the outrage? Where are the defenders of people with disabilities and mental illnesses? What have they done?

Before the Butler case began making headlines, the U.S. Justice Department was told about what New Hampshire was doing.  A copy of that letter shows the Treatment Advocacy Center’s Frankie Berger, state Rep. Cushing, and New Hampshire’s American Friends Service Committee all signed it. Although asked to join, the state’s  protection and advocacy agency, the state chapter of the ACLU and the state’s  National Alliance on Mental Illness  all declined to sign.

That’s right, they said no. Only later did they issue a short statement declaring their organizations opposed the practice. They’ve been largely silent since then. As has the ACLU Prison Project and the National Disability Rights Network.

When informed, New Hampshire’s  U.S. Representative Carol Shea-Porter (D) contacted the Justice Department – an important move – and added her voice to those who wanted these transfers stopped. The staffs of the state’s two senators Maggie Hassan (D), Jeanne Shaheen (D) and its other House member,  Ann McLane Kuster (D), have done nothing to help, explaining it is a state issue, not a federal one.

Have New Hampshire’s two senators and U.S. Rep. Kuster never read the U.S. Constitution? Do they not represent persons with mental illnesses and disabilities in their state?

Meanwhile, state Rep. Robert Renee Cushing and 35 other New Hampshire residents held a rally last week outside the state capitol to call attention to Butler’s plight. That event was promoted by activists Wanda Duryea and Beatrice Coulter, co-founders of Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment  along with members of the American Friends Service Committee and NH Voices of Faith.

Andrew’s father Douglas, Butler’s attorney,Sandra Bloomenthal, State Rep. Robert Renee Cushing, activists Wanda Duryea, Beatrice Coulter,  those who attended the rally, the Treatment Advocacy Center and Frankie Berger are continuing to demand an end to this barbaric practice. Writer Nancy West continues to cover it.

The question is whether others in New Hampshire, especially those who receive federal dollars to advocate for persons with disabilities; the ACLU, and NAMI will continue to wring their hands but do little other than sign a letter?

The question is whether the good people of New Hampshire will continue to allow their elected leaders to save money by imprisoning people simply because they become sick?

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.