Off-Label Use of Psychotropic Meds to Sedate Prison Inmates

National Public Radio recently ran stories concerning the off-label use of psychotropic medications to sedate nursing home residents to make them more pliable and easier for staff to control.  Unfortunately, this abuse does not occur only in nursing homes.  It happens in jails and prisons in the United States and other countries.

Several stories have recently appeared concerning the use of these mind-altering medications to control inmates in Canadian prisons.  This has, however, been a concern in US jails and prisons, as well.  I have spoke with mental health professionals who service prison populations, and they confirm that it happens here with increasing frequency.

One of the most routinely used drugs is known is quetiapine, more commonly known by the brand name Seroquel.  This medication is approved only for treating bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia; however, it is apparently given as a sedative to jail and prison inmates who do not have such disorders just to make them easier to control.Even when used properly, these drugs have side-effects that can be lethal.  For example, Seroquel’s side effects can include diabetes, hyperglycemia, muscle twitching, constipation, intestinal obstruction, complications from blood clots, and death.

It may be possible to explain the use of such medications to control jail and prison inmates by noting that the number of individuals with mental health issues who enter such facilities has been increasing steadily for several years.  However, this may be an easy answer that does not account for the sheer volume with which Seroquel and similar medications are given to inmates.

Unfortunately, there are people who may think that this is a perfectly acceptable means of inmate control.  Some may even find it amusing.  But there are several reasons why none of us should be amused by this.

First, across the U.S., Seroquel has become known by inmates as “Quell”, “Susie Q”, or “baby heroin”.  This is just one indication that inmates have found other ways to use the drug to their advantage, with the result that its distribution to prison inmates may actually promote further illegal activity within the facility.  There have been reports of inmates not being properly supervised once they receive their doses.  Some inmates apparently stock pile the meds and trade them with other inmates for other things they may want, thereby converting the drugs into a form of prison currency.  There also have been reports of inmates grinding the meds and snorting them, as opposed to taking them in their prescribed manner.  Thus, giving these meds to inmates may actually be making them less susceptible to control.

Further, inmates receive medical treatment during their term of incarceration, which is paid for with tax dollars.  If an inmate gets seriously ill as a result of being prescribed Seroquel by prison staff, their health care may become more expensive, with taxpayers picking up the tab.

Finally, say an inmate dies during their prison term as a result of taking Seroquel or some similar medication.  The inmate’s survivors may decide to commence suit against the State and/or its responsible agencies.  At best, the State will have to pay to defend that case.  At worst, it may end up paying a settlement or judgment for wrongful death.  In any event, the cost comes from tax dollars.

Jails and prisons are bad places that are difficult to control.  Using drugs like Seroquel to enhance the ability of correctional staff to control inmates just makes a bad situation worse.




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