Supporters of a young man being held in the secure psychiatric unit of a New Hampshire prison walked from the prison to a courthouse Thursday, calling for his release and advocating for an end to the practice of putting people with mental illness behind bars.
Andrew Butler, 21, of Hollis, was committed to the state psychiatric hospital last fall and then transferred to the prison’s secure psychiatric unit in January. State officials say patients who haven’t been charged with crimes can be sent to prison if they can’t be safely be housed at the hospital.
But Butler recently filed a petition in U.S. District Court saying the practice is unconstitutional and that he has been subject to cruel and unusual punishment.
“He is held as a mental health patient without being in an accredited hospital, denied contact visits with his father, denied contact visits with his attorney, forced to wear prison clothing,” his attorney, Sandra Bloomenthal, wrote in a petition filed last month. “He is locked down 23 hours a day. He has been tasered.”
In an interview Wednesday with the news website InDepthNH.org , Butler said he doesn’t mind being locked up with convicted criminals and that he has been allowed much more freedom in recent days.
“I just want to let everyone know that I am safe in here and it’s definitely a lot better to have the privileges that I do have now,” he said. “I’m getting better and I’m feeling healthier and happier.”
Outside the prison Thursday, Butler’s father said while his son’s experience has been horrible, he’s hopeful Andrew will be released.
“If it’s just me, they’ll do what they want with him and that will be that,” Doug Butler said. “But now I’m meeting other people and we’re getting someplace. I think we’re going to get Andrew out of there.”
Doug Butler said his son had no signs of mental illness until he returned last summer from a trip to Vermont, where he took hallucinogenic drugs. Andrew Butler told InDepthNH.org he became depressed after an injury, losing a college scholarship and then dropping out of school. He said the hallucinations he experienced in Vermont continued when he returned home, and he was diagnosed with schizophrenia after police found him running in the woods and punching trees in December.
Andrew’s mother, Debbie Boyd, stood near the courthouse Thursday with a sign that read “Pray for my son Andrew.”
“He’s getting all the help he needs right where he’s at,” she said. “He’s in good hands, and he’s in good care.”
The state has filed a motion to dismiss Butler’s petition.
Rep. Renny Cushing has fought unsuccessfully for years for a secure unit at the state psychiatric hospital for patients like Butler. This year, he sponsored a bill that would have required the prison unit to be accredited as a psychiatric hospital, but the version that passed the Legislature was amended to require accreditation as a behavioral health facility.
“I would hope that no matter what happens that next year, those of us who return will step up, stop criminalizing people with mental illness and build a multipurpose accredited psychiatric hospital to treat those with severe mental illness,” he said.