Whiting Forensic Division in Middletown on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. The hospital provides treatment and evaluation services for patients with mental health conditions who are involved in the criminal justice system, or are not ready to be safely treated in less restrictive settings. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Whiting Forensic Division in Middletown. The hospital provides treatment and evaluation services for patients with mental health conditions who are involved in the criminal justice system, or are not ready to be safely treated in less restrictive settings. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

David McKeever has seen a lot of accused criminals admitted to Whiting Forensic Hospital in the two years he’s spent there since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the fatal stabbing of his longtime partner. From his perspective, nearly every criminal suspect sent to the Middletown hospital has a substance abuse problem.

And yet, he said, there is only one 12-step recovery program that meets at Whiting each week. The hospital should be “saturated” with Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and support groups for anger management, McKeever said. When he tells staff that, nothing changes, he observed.

“I’m so surprised how little treatment is provided,” McKeever told the CVH Whiting Task Force over a video call Tuesday.  “We seem like we’re being more punished than provided with treatment. This place seems to be treated more like a prison than it is actually a hospital.”

McKeever was one of 11 patients from Connecticut Valley and Whiting Forensic Hospitals who testified by video before the CVH Whiting Task Force Tuesday morning. It was the second patient forum the task force held in two weeks as it prepares to give lawmakers a set of recommendations next year on how to improve conditions at Connecticut’s two largest state-run mental health hospitals. Patients were allowed to give as much or as little identifying information as they wished, to preserve their anonymity. The task force referred to all patients by their first names only.

Last week, the task force heard from six CVH patients about the conditions there. On Tuesday, they heard from five more and six from Whiting Forensic Hospital, Connecticut’s only maximum security psychiatric hospital. It houses civil commitment patients, individuals found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity and those accused of crimes whose competency must be restored before they can stand trial.

McKeever wasn’t the only Whiting patient who compared the hospital to a prison. Hal, who, like McKeever, was also found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, claimed Whiting does not have educational programs like state correctional facilities.

“They have limited amount of groups here that are not based upon treating someone’s illness or diagnostic diagnosis,” said Hal.

Whiting Forensic Division in Middletown on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Some patients at the task force’s forum on Tuesday compared the hospital to a prison, and said Whiting’s conditions were inhumane. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org
Whiting Forensic Division in Middletown on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Some patients at the task force’s forum on Tuesday compared the hospital to a prison, and said Whiting’s conditions were inhumane. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Another issue Hal raised is what he called the facility’s “inhumane” living conditions. He said there were roaches recently found in the hospital, and suggested the state move patients to a facility that is more modern and amenable to patient treatment.

The task force’s two co-chairs, Michael Lawlor and Linda Schwartz, made note of Hal’s concern in a meeting after the forum. Schwartz, the former Commissioner of Veterans Affairs, said the Connecticut Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill was built in 1938,  “and it’s in much better shape than Whiting.”

Several CVH patients said the hospital’s showers are frequently cold, and that they had to ask staff for drinking water. Kimberly Beauregard, one of the task force members and the president and CEO of InterCommunity Health Care, said these quality-of-life concerns were important for the task force to address.

“Those things to me are just basic human rights,” she said. “Even if it happens a few times, that’s a few times too many.”

Understaffing was a common concern among patients at CVH. One patient, Jessie, said there was one psychiatrist on his unit for 16 patients, making it difficult for the doctor to make appropriate assessments of each client’s needs.

“As it is he does not meet with us once a week,” Jessie said. “He doesn’t have enough time to understand us.”

Melissa, another patient who had been at CVH for two and a half years, said a lack of staffing limits the activities available to patients. Employees escort those who live in the hospital to appointments or meetings outside the units where they live, or bring them to recreational opportunities.

“This place is nowhere near therapeutic,” Melissa said. “It’s a holding facility used to institutionalize people like me.”

Other patients said staff treated them like children by restricting what they watch on television and being dismissive of their wishes for holistic treatment options.

“We get treated like children and are expected to act like adults,” Jessie said. “Any human emotion seen as negative can be turned into a symptom and be an excuse for mental illness, when in reality, this place is just a stressful place to be in, in general.”

Paul Acker, a task force member and senior policy advisor for Advocacy Unlimited, acknowledged that it is not uncommon for institutionalized patients to be treated like children. He said he’s seen hospital units where patients can’t watch movies rated higher than PG, despite that those same patients will eventually go home and watch R-rated films, an action that doesn’t impact their mental health conditions.

Every person’s treatment plan should include a patient’s goals, so they’re more likely to follow it, Acker said. But it’s difficult to provide an individualized plan in an institutional setting because so many factors have to be controlled.

“Psychiatry has very few tools. They have medications, and they have group therapy,” Acker said, noting that few, if any, patients told the task force about the treatment they are receiving. “We’ve heard people, time and time again, say they don’t feel safe there. And that could be because of staffing, because there’s not enough staffing. But it could be because there’s a whole system in place that’s just not working.”

Another issue afflicting Whiting and CVH patients alike: a lack of beds available in the community. Several people testified in both listening sessions over the past two weeks that they were waiting for a space to open in another, less restrictive treatment facility so they could get discharged from Whiting or CVH.

“The only reason I’m still here is because I don’t have an available house to go to,” said Daniel, a patient at Whiting who said he’s been waiting a year and a half for a bed to become available.

The task force made mention of the shortage of community-based treatment options, but it wasn’t anything new to them. Beauregard called it the “same old story” from years ago, when the state closed two of its large psychiatric institutions in the 1990s, then failed to reallocate money to community-based mental health services.

“What happens from there is people just end up being in CVH forever,” Acker said. “And then lawsuits come.”

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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