By Max Sullivan
Posted May 2, 2018 at 9:21 AM Updated May 2, 2018 at 9:58 AM
HAMPTON -- Being named the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Legislator of the Year for his work on improving the state’s secure psychiatric unit left state Rep. Renny Cushing with mixed feelings.
Numerous bills filed by Cushing, D-Hampton, over the years have yet to remove the unit’s mental health patients from under the supervision of the prison system, conditions he said paint patients as criminals even when not charged with a crime.
“It keeps me up and haunts me,” said Cushing this week of SPU patients falling under the supervision of the state Department of Corrections. Patients are transferred to the SPU, inside the state prison in Concord, from New Hampshire Hospital when they require security measures not available at the state hospital.
Cushing’s push to improve conditions for SPU patients has not gone unnoticed despite his frustrations. He was presented in April with the NAMI Legislator of the Year Award for his work on bills related to the SPU. NAMI described Cushing as a “tireless advocate for some of the most highly stigmatized people with mental illness in New Hampshire.”
Cushing has been vocal in criticizing the state for housing committed patients in the unit despite it not being an accredited hospital and for keeping those patients under DOC supervision rather than the state Department of Health and Human Services. Cushing has described the practice as the “criminalization of people with mental illness,” as some SPU patients have not been charged with a crime.
“People placed at New Hampshire’s SPU are among the most severely ill individuals in the Granite State,” NAMI stated. “We are grateful that Rep. Cushing acknowledges they are also our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends and neighbors - deserving of care and treatment which promotes recovery and preserves their dignity.”
This legislative session, Cushing filed House Bill 1565 to require the SPU receive accreditation as a mental health hospital. The Senate passed the bill with an amendment to instead require the unit be accredited as a behavioral health facility, which Cushing said essentially gutted the legislation.
Still, NAMI praised Cushing for filing the bill, as well as his 2017 bill to review civil transfers of patients from the state hospital. The alliance stated in its explanation for Cushing’s award that the bills have fostered discussion, as well as spurred some legislators to tour the psychiatric unit.
Cushing said opponents of bills to improve conditions for SPU patients have argued there are higher priorities for spending on improvements to mental health treatment in New Hampshire. He said they have also argued there are too few patients in the SPU to make the change a priority.
Cushing said he views hesitation to change the system as an indication of “how little we value people with mental illness” in New Hampshire.
“We would never send people to prison who had cancer,” Cushing said. “Because they have mental illness, people say, ‘Well, ... let the guards take care of them.’”
Cushing is hopeful a recent habeas corpus filing in federal court by a current SPU patient, 21-year-old Andrew Butler, will help raise awareness of patients being placed inside the state prison without having committed a crime. Butler’s filing demanded he be transferred to an accredited specialized mental health hospital.
Butler’s attorney, Sandra Bloomenthal, wrote in the court filing that Butler is being required to wear prison clothing and is guarded by correction officers rather than by mental health workers. She wrote he is locked down 23 hours a day, has been Tasered and received “cruel and unusual punishment without having been convicted of a crime.” Cushing has been in contact with Butler’s father frequently since the filing.
“I’m glad that, finally, someone has brought it in the court to at least try to free one of the prisoners there,” he said. “Hopefully, with the light of day, people will get it. It’s a dirty little secret.”