Whiting Forensic Services at Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) is transitioning to its own standalone hospital, separate from CVH. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org
Whiting Forensic Services at Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) in Middletown. Mackenzie Rigg / CTMirror.org

A few weeks after taking a tour of Whiting Forensic Hospital, members of a state task force described the building as run down and dated and questioned whether psychiatric patients would be more effectively treated in a more modern facility.

“I think that particular facility is beyond the point of no return. I can’t imagine how you can retrofit that place,” said Michael P. Lawlor, co-chairman of the task force and an associate professor at the University of New Haven. “So, I don’t think it is out of bounds at all at the end of the day for us to consider recommending that the state identify a new and improved facility for this purpose.”

Fellow task force member Paul Acker, the chief of staff at Advocacy Unlimited, called Whiting “depressing” and “uninspiring” for patients and staff alike.

“If I was working there, I would be depressed, which would then in turn affect how I treat people,” said Acker.

The eight-member task force publicly aired impressions of their visit to the embattled facility on Monday afternoon, meeting for the fourth time since lawmakers approved the committee’s formation following allegations that staff abused kicked, hit and tormented a patient in 2017.

Describing the state’s only maximum security psychiatric hospital, Lawlor said the diamond-shaped, two-floor building has narrow corridors and lacks natural sunlight. Others said the infrastructure is not well maintained, and the furniture looked decades old.

“It is worth noting, so no one takes this comment I’m making out of context, that Whiting Forensic is a maximum security facility. What goes with that is not your typical hospital-type setting,” said Lawlor, a former legislator and criminal justice advisor in the Malloy administration.  “It’s just not conducive to the kinds of outcomes that I think we all agree should be the goal of a facility like Whiting.”

The task force is required to submit a report on its findings and make recommendations to the legislature no later than Jan. 1, 2021. Nancy Alisberg, a committee member and the former managing attorney at the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, said the task force has the authority to recommend that Whiting be closed, should the facts eventually lead it to that conclusion.

“I’m not raising this for a motion or anything now,” she said, stressing that the committee has a broad range of options to consider over the next 18 months.

“We as a task force have the ability to look beyond this current structure so that we don’t have to look just to ways to improve the current structure,” Alisberg said, “but we can make recommendations to change the current structure.”

Patients are admitted to Whiting through the state’s Department of Correction, the Psychiatric Security Review Board, via a civil commitment, or through a court order so they can be made competent to stand trial. Task Force Co-chair Linda Schwartz said she is particularly concerned about the patients admitted for competency restoration because they have not been convicted of a crime.

“Things are broken. It is not a nice to place to live, or to feel safe and secure,” Schwartz said. “I was kind of stunned that this was the showcase of our forensic hospital. It’s not in good condition, and I am not sure about the renovations, but if you take someone who is just there for a competency exam, and you put them in that atmosphere, what have you just done to them?”

Task force members questioned why patients are sent to Whiting so they can be made competent to stand trial for their alleged crimes, and expressed concern that those who are deemed “nonrestorable” can be civilly committed and required to spend more time at the hospital.

Committee member and Whiting Forensic Psychologist Lori Hauser said the goal of hospital staff is to move civil patients out of Whiting as quickly as possible, provided they don’t pose a threat to public safety.

“Where we run into difficulty, again, comes down to bed space. Things get backlogged. We have difficulty getting patients out of the hospital, into community settings,” Hauser said. “Things get backed up at Dutcher [an enhanced security building that also treats psychiatric patients,] then they get backed up at Whiting, and we end up having a non-dangerous civil patient housed at Whiting longer than they needed to be, which is unfortunate.”

Much of Monday’s conversation ultimately centered on the role that Whiting fulfills for its patients.

“Is this a hospital? Do we expect these people to get well, or is it a prison?” Schwartz asked her peers. “And I think Connecticut has to decide.”

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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