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NH Corrections Dept. says it did not complete internal review after death, revising earlier statement

The Secure Psychiatric Unit at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.
Paige Sutherland
/
NHPR
The Secure Psychiatric Unit on the grounds of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men.

In the week since a former prison guard was charged with second-degree murder, the New Hampshire Department of Corrections has given conflicting statements about its internal review of the incident.

The former corrections officer, Matthew Millar of Boscawen, is accused of causing the April 29, 2023 death of Jason Rothe, who was a patient at the state prison system’s Secure Psychiatric Unit at the time. Prosecutors allege Millar knelt on Rothe’s back for several minutes while restraining him face-down, causing him to asphyxiate.

In a statement last week, the Department of Corrections said it had cleared Millar to return to duty last year after reviewing his actions, along with those of several other officers involved in the confrontation that led to Rothe’s death.

“Following the completion of the Department’s administrative review, the officers were returned to full duty based on information available to the department at that time,” the department said in the Feb. 8 statement. “Based on new information made available to the department today, [Department of Corrections] Commissioner [Helen] Hanks has directed another administrative review and placed the officers on administrative leave.”

The Department of Corrections now says it never completed an internal review last year, but rather halted that process once it learned the New Hampshire Department of Justice was investigating Rothe’s death.

Jane Graham, a spokesperson, said that was “so as not to impede the Attorney General’s Office investigation.”

Graham also said the officers were initially placed on administrative leave, then served in “non-direct alternative posts without contact with residents” before eventually returning to full duty.

“Looking back at our original statement, we shouldn’t have said that our administrative review was completed,” Graham said by email after a reporter asked about the inconsistent statements.

Millar’s employment with the Department of Corrections ended in mid-December 2023, according to its original statement. His attorney has said he intends to plead not guilty. Prosecutors say they do not intend to bring charges against any of the other officers involved in using force against Rothe.

The Secure Psychiatric Unit sits on the grounds of the state prison in Concord. It houses both people serving sentences and people who have been civilly committed but can’t be treated safely at the state psychiatric hospital.

Rothe was civilly committed to the state hospital in 2019 because of a mental illness. He was transferred to the Secure Psychiatric Unit in 2022 due to concerns he could harm himself or others, according to court records filed by the attorney general’s office.

The confrontation that led to his death began when corrections officers tried to forcibly remove him from a day room, according to a summary of the investigation filed in court. The officer in charge during that shift later acknowledged to investigators that Department of Corrections policy called for a less aggressive response, as Rothe’s refusal to leave the room wasn’t putting anyone in danger.

Advocates have long criticized the state for sending people with mental illness who have not been convicted of crimes to an unaccredited psychiatric facility run by the state prison system. Officials say a new forensic hospital, slated to open next year, will bring an end to that practice.

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the corrections officers eventually returned to full duty. That was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.
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