How are psychotropic drugs used to maintain control over mass incarceration in the United States? On Wednesday evening, Anthony Ryan Hatch, professor of science in society, sociology and African American Studies at Wesleyan University, addressed this question of prison drug use in his lecture to an audience of about 50 students and faculty at Sterling Hall of Medicine’s Beaumont Room.
According to Hatch, U.S. prisons have exploited psychotropic medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedatives and tranquilizers to exert control on inmates. Inmates have been forced to take these medications despite lack of formal diagnosis of mental illness, Hatch said. In addition, Hatch detailed his findings on how these medications have served as a means of control over not only inmates in the prison system but also those in immigrant detention centers, foster homes, military internment centers and nursing homes.
“I speculate with good reason that the United States prison system is the single largest institutional consumer of psychotropic drugs in the world,” Hatch said in his talk.
Conducting studies about misuse of psychotropic drugs in the prison system posed an immense challenge due to the dearth of existing information, according to Hatch, who delivered the talk as part of the Program for Humanities in Medicine.
“No two consecutive survey years asked the same question about psychotropics, which made it difficult for any historical study to be done. No survey has ever asked prisoners whether they were forced to take psychiatric drugs, no survey had drug-specific data, and no data monitored the mental health composition of prison populations on a regular basis,” he explained.
Nonetheless, the dearth of information did not stop Hatch from conducting further investigations, during which he found a reliable source: prison pharmacies.
From analysis of 31 publicly available audits of prison pharmacies, Hatch found that prison pharmacies are plagued by mismanagement of resources, causing a fiscal and management crisis. Problems include inadequate formularies, insufficient oversight, lack of space and lack of well-trained personnel. More importantly, Hatch found that officials use the audit to determine whether money can be saved without violating laws about basic maintenance of inmate health. Thus, cutting costs become a higher priority than the medical care of inmates.
Hatch’s findings showed that the privatization of prison health care is one manifestation of these cost-cutting measures. Through privatization of inmate medication and medical care, corporations and medical practitioners have become complicit in state-sanctioned forms of medical violence characterized by medically unwarranted prescription of drugs that make inmates more docile. These practices have led to corporate profits at the expense of inmates’ proper care.
“Prisons and the prisoners constitute an important node in biomedical capitalism,” Hatch said.
Hatch then discussed the possibility that the U.S. criminal justice system relies on the abuse of psychotropic drugs to maintain its massive scale of incarceration.
The United States prison system houses 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. The annual cost of incarceration in the United States is $81 billion, amounting to approximately $36,000 per inmate annually. Without the broad manipulation of chemical control to ensure prisoner compliance and thus reduce costs, Hatch posed the question of whether this scale of incarceration in the United States would even be possible.
People in “socialized captivity” outside prisons, such as mental institutions, immigrant detention centers and nursing homes have similarly become subjected to medical abuse through the mismanagement of psychotropic drugs, according to Hatch.
“Society’s storage dumps — that’s what they call the places that are supposed to take care of our elderly and mentally ill,” he said.
Just as prison sentences have become longer due to mandatory minimums, the average detainment of individuals in these institutions has also become longer, according to Hatch. Housing large groups of people for extended periods of time, these institutions are “holding and molding” people in captivity, he said.
“The objective of the medical humanities program is to use the medical humanities as a means of raising the critical consciousness of our community, to highlight issues of social justice and to shed light on the roles that we in the medical profession have played and continue to play in systems of oppression,” said Anna Reisman, director of the Program for Humanities in Medicine.
Hatch’s book, “Silent Cells: The Secret Drugging of Captive America,” is scheduled to be released on April 30.