CITIZEN VOICES® Moving patients out of prison is top priority

Jan 25, 2019

Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) is sponsoring a 2019 bill that requires the state to plan and construct a secure psychiatric hospital. 

Gov. Chris Sununu also says he will include funds for a secure psychiatric hospital in his budget proposal, due in February. 

For many lawmakers, building a secure psychiatric hospital is a top priority this year. 

The secure psychiatric unit in New Hampshire 

Right now, if a patient with mental illness presents a serious threat of danger to him/herself or others, that patient is transferred to the secure psychiatric unit (SPU) of the state prison.  That means patients who have never been convicted of a crime are housed alongside violent criminals and sex offenders.   

According to reports, patients are denied access to medications that have high “street value” in the prison because they might be stolen by other inmates.  Group therapy takes place in metal cages.  Patients are kept in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours a day.  Their visits with family and attorneys are restricted.  

Until 1986, the state hospital had a secure unit to house potentially violent patients.  However, after several escapes and violent incidents, New Hampshire began transferring those patients to the state prison instead. 

In 2019, New Hampshire is facing a lawsuit over this treatment. 

Arguments for a new secure psychiatric hospital 

Many policymakers argue putting patients in prison is inhumane and unconstitutional, because those patients have never been convicted of a crime.  With at least one lawsuit already in process, the courts are most likely to agree and order the state to build a secure hospital — and possibly pay damages to patients. 

Moving patients to a secure psychiatric hospital would also allow the state to use Medicaid funds to treat those patients. 

Should this be a lower priority? 

Building a secure psychiatric hospital won’t be cheap, however.  In 2010 a study committee estimated a price tag of $13.5 million, yet there are only a couple dozen patients in the state prison psychiatric unit at any given time.   

Meanwhile the state is facing other pressing funding priorities that could also lead to lawsuits, such as school funding. ​

Should New Hampshire prioritize building a secure psychiatric hospital?

Related Bill

HB 726 (2019)
Bill Status: Tabled in the Senate
Hearing date: Mar 26, 2019

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