NH prisons lack transparency and accountability

The following article was authored by Wanda Duryea and Beatrice Coulter – Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment.

We are currently watching a nation reject the status quo. The rejection of systemic and institutionalized racism and its associated police brutality is rocking our nation. Law enforcement is under a lens that is unprecedented. Its culture, practices and impact are being challenged like never before. The continued militarization of our nation’s police have taken many lives needlessly.

That culture is also pervasive in prisons. The para-military behaviors of corrections officers that have also injured and killed incarcerated individuals is equally disturbing and pervasive. Yet here in New Hampshire they have the most direct contact with vulnerable individuals in both the Secure Psychiatric Unit and the Residential Treatment Unit, which is part of SPU. Corrections officers are given less than 3 days of specific training on how to manage individuals with severe mental illness. From those who contact us regularly, the lack of training is evident. Tasers, pepper spray and lock-downs that last for days are part of their limited skill set. Such methods are inconsistent with creating a therapeutic milieu. Pulitzer Prize journalist Pete Earley recently wrote about a pro se lawsuit filed in the US District Court by a civilly committed individual alleging such abuses in SPU. Civilly committed individuals do not escape such brutality either.

In New Hampshire, if you are in the prison your are considered an inmate regardless of your legal status. The state relieved itself of requiring a conviction to incarcerate an individual in the prison decades ago. Due process is a distraction, not a requirement in New Hampshire for those with severe mental illness. The state has created a system that routinely denies individuals due process rights as individuals not convicted of crimes are incarcerated in the Secure Psychiatric Unit.

Many of the cases we see publicly have received national attention because of cell phone video. Law enforcement has killed with such impunity that these crimes play out in broad daylight on the streets of our nation. The video of a police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man is redefining our nation. In the prison that is not what happens. The abuse and brutality are not seen by the public. Tall walls, politicized systems and a reckless disregard for life is what has been happening in prisons across our nation for decades. We have been able to look away, because it was not visible. It is visible, through lawsuits, untimely deaths and families left wondering what happened to their loved ones.

In December 2017, a 34 year old inmate named Philip Borcuk died in the Residential Treatment Unit in the New Hampshire Prison for Men in Concord. It was originally reported in the media that he died due to “self-injurious behavior”. No further information was released as the state police were investigating. A transcript from an April 2018 hearing in the US District Court highlights some of the state’s conduct after Mr. Borcuk’s death.

The Disability Rights Center(DRC) under the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act, known as PAIMI, requested records regarding Mr. Borcuk’s death. Under a provision in PAIMI, DRC can determine probable cause if they suspect abuse or neglect.The initial response from the Attorney General’s office was as follows, “Department of Corrections did not see any inference of abuse or neglect”. The state had determined that DRC had no probable cause. DRC disagreed and filed a lawsuit. Other interesting items are also noted in this transcript. The state provided DRC with two seconds of video, essentially nothing. DRC indicated that they received video from the hall and could see a corrections officer with a “handheld camera .“ Yet they were advised that the “battery died” and no additional video was available. The transcript also indicated that seven corrections officer were involved in the incident . Yet we are being told by the Department of Corrections  that he died of “self injury”. When one factors in the involvement of seven corrections officers and “two seconds” of video, that seems implausible.

These are the historical strategies and behaviors that we must reject. They need to be replaced with transparency and facts.  Enough time has passed that the cause and manner of Philip’s Borcuk’s death needs to be released, as well as the circumstances surrounding his death. These are tactics that states have utilized for decades to evade accountability. We cannot accept an unexplained death in a unit designed to house vulnerable individuals. This individual died in the custody and care of the state when there was no expectation of death being imminent.

We must be equally outraged by the lack of transparency and accountability in our prison systems. The culture of silence exists as well. DRC advised the court that several staff members refused to speak with them for interviews. The Department of Corrections should not be allowed to continue to operate in a system that is, by design to limit transparency,  eliminate public accountability and thwart litigation or legal consequence.

In 2007 a corrections officer was convicted of repeated sexual assaults of a woman in the Secure Psychiatric Unit. When she filed a civil lawsuit it revealed that the Department of Corrections ignored her initial claims. Ultimately, when they became aware the individual was fired. However, no criminal charges were filed. It was not until the civil lawsuit was filed that the individual was charged several years later. The rule of law has been negotiable when it comes to the state policing its own malfeasance or potentially criminal conduct. An individual associated with SPU is currently on the Laurie List. That barrier to the truth is also being challenged and litigated. Absurd explanations that appear to defy logic we can no longer accept as truth. Facts are truth.

Philip Borcuk and the unanswered questions about his death have not been forgotten. He left behind a family and a community that wants to understand how his life ended. The states treatment of mentally ill individuals has, is and remains brutal and primitive. New Hampshire has chosen to stay on the wrong side of history longer than most other states. We need to reject that status quo as well. A forensic hospital needs to be constructed and staffed with trained mental health professionals on the front lines, not corrections officers. A culture of healing and restoration needs to replace one of control and retribution. If a new facility is constructed, there needs to be an import of talent and leaders that understand civil rights, forensic psychiatry and their intersection.

What happened to Philip Borcuk ?