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In rejecting bill, N.H. lawmakers cite significant progress on secure psychiatric hospital

A photo of the gate to the prison's secure Psychiatric Unit. The gate is a chain link fence with coils of barbed wire at the top.
Dave Cummings
New Hampshire Bulletin
Forensic patients are currently held, some for several years, in the prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit, which is not accredited for mental health services

A House committee feels the state’s progress on a long-stalled effort to transfer mental health patients from the state prison to a hospital is moving along so well, it killed a bill this week giving lawmakers a greater role in the project.

Prior to the 20-0 vote finding House Bill 1391 inexpedient to legislate, Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Pearson acknowledged the persistent advocacy of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat.

“This will not be so much ‘the bill has failed’ as it will be ‘your hopes have triumphed,’” Pearson, a Hampstead Republican, said.

There is a second bill that would require the Department of Health and Human Services to operate and manage the hospital as opposed to a private contractor. However, Senate Bill 391 would allow the department to contract with a private medical provider for clinical services. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will take testimony on that bill Tuesday.

The new $30 million, 24-bed hospital, approved by the Legislature this year, will house forensic patients who have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity; state hospital patients considered dangerous; those committed by a court due to dangerousness, criminal behavior, and intellectual disability; and people involuntarily committed for treatment who are a danger to themselves or others.

This population is currently held, some for several years, in the prison’s Secure Psychiatric Unit, which is not accredited for mental health services.

Prison and jail inmates who are sent to the Secure Psychiatric Unit to be treated for psychiatric needs will remain. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Richelle Angeli said they make up the majority of people in the unit.

A 2021 report from the New Hampshire Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said housing patients with mental illness in a prison “could be dehumanizing to those seeking mental health services.”

The Department of Health and Human Services intends to open the new 24-bed secure hospital on the state hospital grounds in December 2023. The Department of Administrative Services won Executive Council approval Wednesday to hire a Maine company to do initial architectural and engineering surveys so the state can begin designing the facility and hiring a construction company.

And Jan. 31, Health and Human Services and Administrative Services will hold their second Zoom session to give an update to the public on their progress and take community questions. The link to join the 6 p.m. session is on the Health and Human Services website.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

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