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Man Treated In Prison Despite No Conviction Asks Judge For Transfer To State Psychiatric Hospital

Jason Moon / NHPR
Anthony Heath (left) waits as attorneys confer with Judge Amy Messer.

A man who has spent the last three and a half years inside a prison-run psychiatric unit despite never being convicted asked a judge on Friday to order his transfer to a less restrictive mental health facility.

The case of Anthony Heath highlights New Hampshire's controversial practice of treating some mental health patients with no convictions inside the prison system.

Heath was civilly committed to New Hampshire Hospital in 2016 after being deemed not competent to stand trial for an assault charge.

His mother, Nancy Heath, says she hoped Anthony would get better at the hospital. To her surprise, after ten days, he was transferred to the State's Secure Psychiatric Unit, which is located at the state prison and run by the Department of Corrections.

“They didn't treat him and they just sent him to prison on the likelihood that he might be dangerous,” said Nancy Heath.

Deborah Robinson, administrator of the Secure Psychiatric Unit, appeared as a witness in the courtroom Friday. She testified that in the more than three years Anthony Heath has been held at the SPU, he has not been violent.

According to Robinson, staff at the SPU have twice requested that Heath be transferred back to New Hampshire Hospital. The first request was denied by New Hampshire Hospital. The second request is ongoing.

Robinson said a treatment team at the Secure Psychiatric Unit believes Heath is ready to be treated in a less restrictive environment.

Heath's attorney Bob Carey says the process by which patients are transferred between New Hampshire Hospital and the Secure Psychiatric unit violates patients' rights.

“This particular process doesn't work. And I think this case shows that the process is flawed. And in Tony's case it wasn't necessarily followed properly.”

Sam Garland with the Attorney General’s office argued the existing process for transferring patients is legal and allows for patients to be moved into less restrictive environments as necessary.

Governor Chris Sununu and Democratic lawmakers last year compromised on a partially-funded $8.75 million plan to build a new 24-bed forensic hospital separate from the state prison. In theory, the new facility would allow the state to eliminate the practice of transferring civilly committed patients into the prison-run Secure Psychiatric Unit.

Judge Amy Messer ordered attorneys to filed updated briefs in Heath’s case by January 31.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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