NAMI Objects To My Criticism About It Not Doing More In New Hampshire To End Incarceration Of Individuals Imprisoned Simply Because They Are Mentally Ill

(6-22-18) In a recent blog (Time To End New Hampshire’s Shameful Practice of Putting Individuals With Mental Illnesses Into A  Maximum Security Prison To Save Money), I complained because the NAMI New Hampshire chapter had not joined the Treatment Advocacy Center in asking the U.S. Department of Justice to stop the state from imprisoning individuals with mental illnesses in a state prison even though they had not been charged with a crime. (The state doesn’t want to pay for a secure unit at its state hospital. Link to copy of TAC letter below.)

Both NAMI’s national office and Kenneth Norton, NAMI New Hampshire’s Executive Director, told me that my criticism was misinformed and unfair. Here is an edited version of the first email Ken sent me and the official letter that he drafted as a response to my blog. I have not edited nor altered their letter.

Hi Pete, 

I am deeply disappointed that you chose to include statements about NAMI NH in your blog about NH’s Secure Psychiatric Unit without checking facts first. ..NAMI NH has had a long standing position opposing the transfer of patients from New Hampshire Hospital to the Secure Psychiatric Unit.  We have provided oral and written testimony in opposition to this practice at numerous legislative bill hearings, study commissions and in other forums.  Our most recent testimony on this issue was March 27, 2018.


Here is NAMI’s official response to my criticism:

In mental health advocacy circles, we have a long, unfortunate history of turning on each other and distracting from efforts to achieve broader advocacy objectives.

This is what has just occurred with recent national blogs and posts regarding New Hampshire’s practice of transferring a small group of individuals, who have been civilly committed but not charged with crimes, from our state hospital to our Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU) where they come under the jurisdiction of the New Hampshire (NH) Dept of Corrections and are co-mingled with people serving criminal sentences.  This process occurs through an administrative transfer that is initiated when an individual engages in such a high level of self-harm or assaultiveness that they are deemed no longer able to be safely maintained at New Hampshire Hospital.

NAMI NH has a well-documented and long-standing opposition to this inappropriate practice and has been actively opposing it for many years – long before it first made national headlines. 

In 2018, we have continued these efforts. Examples of our advocacy on this issue during 2018 include:

  • Providing oral and written testimony in opposition to this practice at two legislative hearings;
  • Advocating for, and helping to facilitate tours of the Secure Psychiatric Unit by legislators and other policy leaders;
  • Encouraging NH Public Radio to address this issue as part of their recent 4 part series on Mental Illness; find the series at
  • Actively advocating for and participating in a legislative study committee tasked with addressing the Secure Psychiatric unit
  • Engaging in ongoing conversations with New Hampshire Hospital Administrators, elected officials and other key policy leaders about options for developing alternatives for safely managing these individuals;
  • Ongoing communications and coordination with other NH advocacy groups addressing this issue;
  • Regularly posting articles and other information about the Secure Psychiatric Unit to our social media;
  • Working to ensure a strong recommendation that this issue must be addressed and resolved as part of the legislatively mandated 10 year mental health plan which will be completed and presented to the Legislature on 10/15/18.

In 2018, NAMI NH named Representative Renny Cushing, who has been championing this issue for over a decade, as our Legislator of the Year.

With 424 legislators in NH, there are many deserving of recognition for their leadership and support on mental health issues, but none more this year than Rep. Cushing who has been a tireless advocate for the most highly stigmatized and vulnerable individuals in our state.

We welcome the voices of others like Pete Earley and the Treatment Advocacy Center in adding their influence and advocacy to these efforts.

However, Pete’s recent blog on the subject contained inaccurate information and criticisms of NAMI NH and other organizations that detract from our collective ability to work in coalition to once and for all end this deplorable practice.

It is not uncommon for various organizations working on complex issues to differ with regard to the best strategies for achieving common advocacy objectives.

In New Hampshire, we have a strong track record of being able to resolve differences and work effectively in partnership towards the common good. Allegations of bad faith by well-meaning individuals who have not been immersed in day-to-day advocacy in the state serve no useful purpose. In this day of fast paced technology, social media and alt facts, a simple call or email to check facts it also provides an opportunity to discuss how to collectively advocate on important issues like this.

I appreciate Pete Earley’s offer giving me the opportunity to set the record straight and hope that this response will lay to rest allegations that NAMI New Hampshire is not actively engaged in working on solving the problem of the Secure Psychiatric Unit.

New Hampshire’s practice of transferring difficult to manage individuals to correctional facilities is wrong and must be changed.

Put in a larger context, it is yet another example of the tragic and often life changing consequences of chronic underfunding of mental health services across the United States that have led to homelessness, emergency room boarding, high rates of inappropriate incarceration, rising suicide rates, and other tragic consequences for people with serious mental illness. And yet in the face of this national tragedy, the U.S. Congress spent much of last summer debating whether to make health insurance coverage for our brains and mental illness and substance use disorders optional and since then has done little to address this national crisis. .

I’m often asked by legislators and media – what states are getting this right? Where is an example of a mental health system that is great? I’m at a loss to answer that question, but I’m reminded of when New Hampshire was ranked #1 in the country for our mental health system in the early 1990’s. When contacted by the press, our NAMI NH founder Peggy Straw was quoted as saying “Oh great, we’re the smartest kids in the dumb class…”  Let’s all keep our eyes on the prize and work together to ensure that people with serious mental illness who are most in need, have access to timely, evidenced based and humane mental health services and supports.

(I also was sent a copy of a letter that was signed by NAMI NH as an example of its lobbying for an end to this practice.)

Here is a copy of the letter that TAC and another group sent to the Department of Justice that NAMI did not sign. DOJ 8.3.16

In addition, here is a video of the Butler family who fought for their son’s release. I was told yesterday that Andrew Butler was freed from prison and returned to the state hospital where he can get care.

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.