What kind of treatment will accused cleaver killer get in prison?

Published: Sep. 26, 2019 at 5:38 PM EDT
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A Burlington man accused of murdering his wife with a meat cleaver will await trial behind bars instead of in a mental health facility. So how is the Department of Corrections set up to handle cases like his?

A Vermont judge Wednesday was ready to release Aita Gurung into the care of the Department of Mental Health -- that's until the deputy commissioner testified that their Middlesex facility is not secure enough.

Gurung is accused of killing his wife and trying to kill is mother-in-law in 2017. Soon after the murder, he was sent to the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin, the state's most secure mental health hospital for the most severe cases of mental illness. Last month it was determined Gurung needed less care and supervision, so he was moved to the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence. That's where Gurung's attorney wanted him to stay as his criminal case played out.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette says Vermont prisons provide adequate mental health care to inmates who need it. "Each case is unique so there's no cookie cutter approach to how we serve these individuals," said Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette.

He says about 60 percent of the state's prison population need mental health treatment at least once. "I think the significance of some of the mental health issues we have seen in the last 4 to 5 years is different than what we have seen in the past," he said.

Touchette says care needs are growing. Up to a half dozen inmates at any one time require significant mental health treatment. Corrections has full-time mental health professionals on staff and access to the Department of Mental Health in case of emergencies. "There are occasions when a person who is in our care is transferred to the DMH because we're not able to provide that level of care," Touchette said.

Treatment plans can also be transferred from DMH back to the Corrections Department, which is the case for Gurung following the judge's order Wednesday.

Attorney General TJ Donovan says they wanted Gurung to wait for trial behind bars. "We have to let the process play out, we have to follow the rule of law. He is going to continue to receive the treatment he needs. We have that continuity of care in our Department of Corrections and we need a secure facility, which a jail is." Donovan said.

He says the Middlesex facility wasn't secure, and DMH officials agreed. They say specific rules do not allow employees to put their hands on patients. They say people have escaped that facility in the past and there is little they or police can do about it.

Donovan says now the focus should be on getting justice for Gurung's wife. "This is no different than any other case, nor should it be treated differently than any other case," he said.

Gurungs's case was one of three insanity defense cases that were dropped by the Chittenden County State's Attorney this spring. Attorney General Donovan says his office is still reviewing the two other cases.