A group has threatened to sue the state for discrimination if it does not change laws governing how the state oversees those acquitted of crimes due to serious mental health issues.
Those under the supervision of the Psychiatric Safety Review Board, known as the PSRB, were initially charged with a felony. They were not convicted but found not guilty by reason of insanity.
The attorneys who wrote the letter threatening the lawsuit represent those who were sent to the state’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital, Whiting Forensic Hospital, instead of jail.
“The acquitted were not convicted of a crime; state and federal laws direct the state not to punish them,” attorneys for the Connecticut Legal Rights Project and Disability Rights Connecticut wrote in the 12-page letter. And yet, the lawyers said, “the acquitted are treated like convicted criminals. Unlike convicts, however, they are discriminated against because of their disability because, among other things, they do not benefit from a fixed term sentence with the possibility of good time credits, probation or parole.
Instead, the lawyers said, it is not uncommon for people under the supervision of the board to spend more time in a psychiatric hospital than they would have spent in jail.
The lawyers argue that their clients’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated, saying the slow and arduous process through which they have the opportunity to regain their freedom discriminates against them. They said the state’s inability to fund adequate community supports means acquitted people are stuck in Whiting for months, if not years, waiting for a bed to become available.
The letter is a request for recognition of patients’ rights. The attorneys requested a meeting with state officials by April 4 to discuss their concerns and find a way to comply with federal law. If officials don’t believe it’s possible under current law to change their practices, the attorneys have asked the state to work with them in the current legislative session to pass a bill amending the law. of State.
Advocates have proposed three steps the state can take to avoid a lawsuit: Propose a plan to increase the number of community providers so PSRB patients can leave Whiting when they are ready, not when a bed becomes available; develop a process that would allow PSRB policy to be changed so that patients can access community-based forensic mental health services; and passing by-laws that reinterpret the “public safety” mandate that guides council decisions.
The lawyers recounted the experiences of three PSRB patients affected by the shortage of community beds or who were affected by what the lawyers described as harmful policies. A patient, placed under the board’s supervision in 1998, worked for years to obtain temporary leave, which usually allows a patient to leave campus and spend a few hours with a community provider. He opted to be sent to a local mental health authority in Middletown but was told there were no openings and they had a long waiting list, forcing the patient to wait the deadline or to choose another place for temporary leave.
Another patient had been on a temporary leave program since 2019 when authorities learned an employee at Whiting Forensic Hospital had borrowed $200 from him. The employee was fired, but somehow borrowed more money from the patient. This staff member then sent the patient a gift card in an attempt to reimburse him, which other staff members intercepted. They then notified the PSRB, after which the patient’s temporary discharge was put on hold.
“He was blamed by the WFH for the unlawful actions of the WFH staff and then punished by the PSRB for being a victim of staff theft,” the lawyers said.
Advocates also claim that the PSRB’s “public safety mandate” violates federal law. This claim builds on a recommendation recently made by the CVH Whiting Task Force, which suggested lawmakers consider abolishing the PSRB because of its focus on public safety rather than patient treatment.
The Public Health Committee is hosting an information forum on Monday about the task force’s findings and recommendations. After the forum, he will hold a public hearing on a draft law based on the work of the task force. The measure would create a task force to study the PSRB and determine whether there is a need for it to continue to exist.
Task force co-chair Michael Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said the state law outlining the board’s decision-making on whether to discharge a patient is primarily based on the protection of society.
“If you read the law, you’d almost think the patient’s best interests are irrelevant,” Lawlor said.
The task force’s recommendation, Lawlor said, is to consider revising the laws governing the PSRB so that the best interests of patients are taken into account when the board assesses a patient’s discharge. After all, Lawlor said, if public safety is the only factor assessed by the board, “why would you let someone out?”
The PSRB process differs even from the movement of incarcerated people through the prison system, Lawlor said. The Department of Correction does not need to hold a hearing every time it transfers a prisoner to a lower-security correctional facility; these are decisions made by DOC officials.
“But these are not decisions made by the forensic hospital. They are made by the PSRB,” Lawlor said, meaning the board decides whether to move patients to a lower-security facility.
Members of the task force did not unanimously agree that the PSRB should be abolished, but they encouraged lawmakers to consider proposals that would better respect patients’ rights while balancing public safety concerns. They expressed concern about the long periods of time people are under the supervision of the board. Last summer, for example, a 20-year-old man was committed to the PSRB for 120 years for stabbing his grandparents to death.
“The stated purpose of the PSRB is to protect public safety; these long commitments do little to achieve this goal,” read the task force’s recommendations. “Rather, they appear to be more of a mechanism to reassure the public that an individual will never be released from an institution.”
The sentiment is shared by at least one patient under PSRB supervision. In a letter to the Board’s Executive Director dated January 16, 2022, Anthony Dyous spoke out against extending his five-year appointment. Dyous originally received a 25-year recognizance in 1985 for hijacking a bus with 47 passengers and holding some of them hostage. His contract has since been extended several times. A 2012 article in The Hartford Courant noted that he had behaved violently, refused to cooperate with psychiatrists or acknowledge his illness.
“The idea that the PSRB is protecting society coupled with the media’s classification of us as (The State’s Most Dangerous Criminals are housed at Whiting Maximum), helps justify our detention until death,” Dyous wrote. .