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Vermont DOC: Nations Biggest Prison Dispenser of Psychotropic Medication

Vermont DOC: Nations Biggest Prison Dispenser of Psychotropic Medication

It is not questioned by those familiar with the population of America's prisoner system that prisons have become the main provider of mental health services since the nation dismantled its psychiatric hospital system. The question, however, is what is a reasonable percentage of prisoners that should be on psychotropic medication?

While there is no clear answer to that query, it is clear that Vermont leads the nation in the percentage of its prison population taking such medications. In 2006, about 46 percent of Vermont prisoners were on psychotropics of some sort. The next-closest state, according to Vermont Department of Corrections (VDOC) mental health director Dr. Susan Wehry, had 24 percent of its prisoners on such drugs.

Seroquel is one heavily prescribed drug in the Vermont prison system. It is an anti-psychotic drug designed for people dealing with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Its possible side effects include high blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes. Its manufacturer, AstraZeneca, says it can also cause tardive dyskinesia, which is "uncontrollable movements of the face, tongue, or other parts of the body" that can become permanent.

An Associated Press freedom of information request found that at VDOC?s Southern Correctional Facility more than 20 percent of the prison?s population were being given Seroquel, even though only 38 were classified as mentally ill, or half of those receiving the drug. At the Southeast State Correctional Facility for woman, nearly one-third of the population was taking Seroquel at the same time.

"The question is why," said Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a Denver-based psychiatrist that studies prison mental health systems. "They ought to figure out why." The answer seems simple to prison doctors.

"The problem in prison is (drugs are) given to a lot of people to quiet them down," said prison mental health expert Dr. Terry Kupers, a California psychiatrist. "They're over-prescribed for people who are not psychotic but who are not sleeping or who are disruptive in prisons."

While VDOC spent $1.76 million buying drugs for prisoners in 2006, that is seen as cheaper than more intensive talk therapy to teach social-coping. "If they're warehousing them in segregation and just giving them pills to quiet them down, that's not treatment," said Kupers.

"Paradoxically, prisoners are both overmedicated and undermedicated. They're undermedicated when prison health authorities won't supply the drugs the inmates had been prescribed on the outside," said David Fathi, the director of Human Rights Watch's US Programs. "And they're overmedicated in the sense that often medication is used as a substitute" for very staff-intensive mental health treatment.

The use of psychotropics can have serious health consequences for prisoners after release. After serving a short sentence in VDOC, one prisoner, who requested to remain anonymous, was diagnosed with diabetes after having been prescribed Seroquel in prison. "No one in my family has ever had diabetes," he said.

Source: Associated Press

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