NEW HAMPSHIRE — State corrections officials in New Hampshire are defending laws that allow them to put patients with mental health struggles in prison, even if they've never committed a crime.
However, one local family says their son is being held against his will and they can't get him out of prison.
Andrew Butler, a 21-year-old former college student and star athlete, has never been convicted of a crime.
Recently, however, Butler has been held in a prison cell for the past four months per order of the state.
Butler was the captain of the football and wrestling teams in his hometown of Hollis, NH and an honor roll student pursuing a career in chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic.
Everything changed for Butler when, on a trip to Vermont last summer with friends, he experimented with drugs.
According to his medical records, Butler was having hallucinations after taking psychedelic mushrooms and LSD before being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
After his diagnosis, in December Andrew's father Doug committed him to the New Hampshire Hospital in Concord for mental health treatment.
But, a month later, after a series of violent episodes, the state took guardianship of Andrew's case and transferred him to the prison SPU without his consent.
"They told me he was going to be there for a week, they told me it was for evaluation only here we are, months and months and months later, and Andrew is still in prison, with no signs that he's ever going to get out," said Doug.
Butler's family has asked a judge to free him from his cell inside the secure psychiatric unit at the men's prison in Concord. Doug says he's asked for a second opinion in court, only to be told his son has been 'written off completely.'
Doug says Andrew is being held in solitary confinement, in a small cell where he is receiving inadequate care.
"He's locked in his cell 23 hours a day, there's nothing in his cell, not a book, not a tv, not a piece of paper - nothing," said Doug.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Andrew's attorney says "he's been forced to wear prison clothing, has been tasered, and is the subject of cruel and unusual punishing without having ever been convicted of a crime."
Friends and family who say this practice is unconstitutional and marched in protest on Thursday afternoon as Andrew's attorney faced a judge in the habeas corpus petition.
Representative Renny Cushing has been fighting for decades to change the laws that allow DOC officials to place mental health patients in prison. The problem, he says, is that the state of New Hampshire doesn't have any other secure facilities built for mental health treatment.
"We're the only state in the country that treats people with mental illness as though they're criminals," said Rep. Cushing. "Once you get into the SPU, it's very difficult to get out, [and] I think there's a constitutional problem with that."
The State Department of Corrections disagrees, saying Andrew is being held in a cell for his own safety, and argues that he has 24-hour access to therapy services and nurses.
On Wednesday, state lawmakers passed a bill that would require certain standards of care at the SPU through accreditation, except Rep .Cushing says it doesn't go far enough.
Until the SPU transfer practice ends, more patients like Butler risk going through the same process.
DOC officials say they believe they already meet accreditation standards at the prison.
In the meantime, Andrew's attorney has filed a petition of habeas corpus, asking a judge to release him back to a civil hospital.
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