CONCORD - About 35 people marched two miles from the men's prison to U.S. District Court in Concord on Thursday to support Andrew Butler of Hollis and others who are locked up at the prison's Secure Psychiatric Unit.
Butler, 21, has been held at the Secure Psychiatric Unit since late January even though he isn't charged with or been convicted of a crime after being transferred from the New Hampshire Hospital, the state's psychiatric hospital. He's now locked up with some civilly committed patients along with convicted criminals who have mental illness.
The marchers timed the rally to coincide with a hearing in U.S. District Court Thursday on Butler's habeas corpus petition demanding to be transferred to a certified psychiatric hospital instead of a prison.
Family and friends of the popular former Hollis Brookline High School star athlete wanted to show their support. Kerry Farwell, whose son is a close friend of Butler's, attended the court hearing, although the scheduling was done in the judge's chamber out of public view.
"We've known Andrew all through high school. He was an honor student and very well liked," Farwell said, clearly upset by what is happening to the former captain of the football and wrestling teams. Butler went on to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, but dropped out in his sophomore year.
Her son, Wyatt, started a YouCaring fund to help Butler that has already raised more than $1,000. Others have signed a petition to Free Andrew besides Thursday's "Butler walk."
"I want to bring Andrew out of the dark place he is in and bring him back to his home and the people that love him. Please help," Wyatt Farwell wrote on the YouCaring page.
Butler has become the focus of the debate about housing patients who are considered too dangerous to themselves or others at the New Hampshire Hospital and commingled instead with convicted criminals and others who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity at the prison's Secure Psychiatric Unit.
Butler told InDepthNH.org on Wednesday that he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that he became ill after taking the drug psilocybin last summer. He was thrilled with the support from his father, Douglas Butler, and his many friends in Hollis, especially what he called Thursday's "Butler walk."
"I just can't believe it's happening. It makes me laugh every time I think about it, like the community getting together to get me out of here, which I think is awesome," Butler said.
Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, who has been fighting to halt the practice of incarcerating people who haven't committed a crime in prison, spoke to the marchers during a stop in front of the State House. Cushing praised the American Friends Service Committee for sponsoring the march, and Advocates for Ethical Mental Health Treatment and NH Voices of Faith for their support.
The responsibility for the criminalization of people with mental illness and the continued use of SPU as place of punishment, not treatment, lies in this building," Cushing said. "The policymakers in the state of New Hampshire 35 years ago decided it would be OK to take someone who never committed a crime, but is a threat to themselves or others and put them behind prison walls. That decision was made under that dome."
Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, talked with some of Butler's supporters in front of the State House on his way to get a haircut.
"I have a commitment from Sen. Feltes and a few other senators that if we get re-elected we're going to look at possibly renovating the Sununu Center or the former women's prison," Avard said. "Having people at the state prison who were committed civilly is just, it's reprehensible."
Avard interviewed Butler's father, Douglas Butler, on his cable TV show and listened to testimony as vice chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
"(Andrew) was in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. He's a very social kid. We don't treat animals like that," Avard said, promising to keep this issue alive during the summer. "I think this is something right out of a horror movie. This needs to be solved. We can't kick it down the road."
Franko Soler flew from Florida Wednesday night after learning last-minute about the march. He videotaped marchers and interviewed family members who described the conditions at the Secure Psychiatric Unit to make a documentary. He and his brother, William Soler of Concord, also wanted to show support for William's son, William Soler Jr., who they say is being mistreated at the Secure Psychiatric Unit.
"My nephew needs medical treatment, that's a fact and he's not getting it at prison," Franko Soler said.
Douglas Butler has been outspoken about the need for his son to get proper psychiatric treatment.
After the court conference in the judge's chambers, Senior Assistant Attorney General Lynmarie Cusack said the court has asked the state and Andrew Butler's attorney Sandra Bloomenthal to file all motions by June 11.
In the original habeas corpus petition, Bloomenthal argued, "(Andrew) is locked down 23 hours a day. He has been tasered. The treatment he has received is cruel and unusual punishment without having been convicted of a crime and with no pending criminal process."
State officials have said it is legal to lock up civilly committed individuals with convicted criminals who are mentally ill.
Cusack told reporters after the chambers conference that a habeas petition can't be filed because the Secure Psychiatric Unit isn't a prison.
Bloomenthal responded: "He is in prison. A prison is a prison is a prison."
Nancy West covers statewide issues and is the publisher of IndepthNH.org