Exterior of Whiting Forensic Hospital on the grounds of Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown. The maximum-security hospital has up to 78 beds for patients needing competency restoration. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

A bill that would reestablish an oversight board for Whiting Forensic Hospital and charge the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services with creating a plan to replace the Middletown hospital received final legislative approval in a unanimous House vote Monday.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill on April 29, the three-year anniversary of the first meeting of the CVH Whiting Task Force, which was formed in the wake of staff abuse of William Shehadi Jr., a patient at the state’s sole maximum security psychiatric hospital.

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor and co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said Shehadi is the reason legislators were committed to reforming practices at Whiting — because his case alerted lawmakers to the systemic abuse at the Middletown hospital.

“That shattered the confidence a lot of people had in our state system,” said Anwar.

The bill legislators passed is based on recommendations from the task force, but Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton and ranking member of the Public Health Committee, said the measure was not as strong as the task force wanted.

“They’re watered down as they are very conscious of risk, and they have moved the needle slightly, but they haven’t swung the pendulum as far as the task force had wanted,” Somers told her colleagues before they approved the bill last week.

During a 13-hour public hearing on March 28 lawmakers listened to testimony from a group rarely heard at the Capitol: Whiting patients.

“It’s more a prison than a hospital,” said Alvin Wilson. “It should be treated as a hospital, not a prison, and maybe the new place you all get [will] have a procedure where you can get better ways.”

Several patients said that even though Whiting staff have helped them become better versions of themselves, there is still a need for reform. Nicolas Simmons said he regularly attends therapeutic group sessions, and that he gets individual mental health treatment whenever he requests it.

“When I first got here, I was an emotional wreck,” he said.

Simmons said the new hospital that will replace Whiting should have space for patients to engage in vocational and educational pursuits, and learn independent living skills.

“I wholeheartedly feel that it can only make a good thing even better,” said Simmons.

The measure also makes changes to laws concerning the Psychiatric Security Review Board, which supervises those found not guilty by reason of insanity. Under the proposal, the PSRB would need to consider the patient’s safety and wellbeing, in addition to public safety, when considering whether to discharge or transfer an acquitted patient to a less secure setting.

In their testimony, patients said the board doesn’t respect the rights of those under its supervision, as they can be stuck in the hospital for years — even longer than they would have spent had they simply pled guilty to the crimes of which they were accused.

“Victims need to understand those acquitted NGRI need to be treated, not punished,” said Gail Litsky, a Whiting patient who has been under the supervision of the PSRB since 2014. “Often the PSRB stands in the way of what the clinicians have deemed beneficial to the patient.”

Aaron Ramsay recalled how he lived a normal life before experiencing psychosis. He played football and was in the marching band. He got into college. Then he lost touch with reality and ended up at Whiting, where he learned how to stay healthy and manage his mental health.

“There’s a lot of people here that have put in the work to get out,” Ramsay said. “We’ve had many hours of therapy, we’ve done groups and a lot of people are ready to go. And beds are being taken up for people that could benefit more from that.”

Legislators amended the bill before passing it in response to concerns from victims that patients would be discharged from the hospital without their knowledge. The final bill did not include language allowing Whiting and Connecticut Valley Hospitals to approve temporary leave for PSRB patients without first going through the security review board.

“We are not changing the requirements for release to the outside community. Those releases will still be determined by the Psychiatric Security Review Board,” said Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford.

The amended version of the bill allows victims to be notified when a PSRB patient is being considered for temporary leave from the hospital, said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, striking a balance between protecting victims’ and PSRB patients’ rights.

“This is compassion on both sides, not only for the patients, but also for the victims,” said Fishbein.

Lawmakers emphasized that the bill they passed was not the end of their work on reforming Whiting Forensic Hospital, and encouraged victims to get in touch with them if they remain concerned.

Appearing via video at the March 28 public hearing, Ricardo Pagan, a patient at Whiting for the last 22 years, said he feels bad for victims but believes patients deserve to have their needs considered.

“We’re human beings, too,” he said. “A lot of us don’t deserve to be locked up like animal[s].”

Others echoed a similar sentiment, reminding lawmakers of Whiting patients’ humanity.

“We’re not bad people getting worse,” said David McKeever. “We’re good people trying to get better.”

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.