Battling mental health behind bars: Inmates deserve autonomy over their mental healthcare

Decision to allow prisons to involuntarily medicate inmates subverts prisoners' personal autonomy, liberty

· Apr 16, 2019 Tweet

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An appeals court ruled in March that inmates in prisons can be involuntarily medicated by staff, even if the inmate is not dangerous or does not pose a threat to other inmates or prison staff.

In 2005, a defendant identified as “C.S.” was convicted of mayhem and sentenced to 20 years in prison. A 2015 jury found that C.S. was mentally ill and a judge ordered the inmate be medicated, despite the inmate’s opposition.

C.S. argued involuntary medication statutes are unconstitutional because they don’t require a finding that the prisoner is dangerous.

Last month, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled that statutes protect prisoners in ways such as informing them about treatment needs and determining whether the prisoner is competent to make treatment decisions. The court also asserted the state’s interest in caring for mentally ill inmates.

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In the U.S., 44 states have a jail or prison which holds more mentally ill individuals than the state’s largest psychiatric hospital. And in every county in the U.S. that contains both a jail and a psychiatric facility, more seriously mentally ill individuals are incarcerated than are in psychiatric facilities.

The prevalence of mentally ill prisoners does validate the question of medicating those inmates. But the question of whether jailing mentally ill individuals is the correct choice in the first place, and whether this mental health crisis is a result of the poor incarceration system itself arises with this debate.

People who suffer from mental illnesses — whether imprisoned or not — must be given the same autonomy as all other citizens when receiving care. Stereotypes swim around the idea that mentally ill people are not competent enough to make their own decisions or to be in charge of their own health care. In this era it should be well established that not only should people have full capability to make their own decisions, but that mental health treatment and services can only be effective when the consumer embraces it — not when it is coerced.

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Involuntary mental health treatment is a serious curtailment of liberty. No one outside of prison walls is being force-fed Zoloft, so why must it be any different for those inside? Involuntary medication reduces prisoners to animalistic standards, potentially leading to worse mental health conditions and behavior toward peers and workers.

If a person is mentally ill to the point that they are being forced to take medication, perhaps the answer lies in the alternative — removing them from a prison setting. Even if a person is receiving the right medication while incarcerated, prison is simply not the proper environment to improve mental wellness. In fact, it more than likely deteriorates it even more.

The solitary confinement that accompanies imprisonment leads to self-harm, physical abuse and a multitude of other psychological problems. Adding a preexisting mental illness on top of that only worsens the state of a prisoner. The mental illness epidemic in prisons is a glaring sign that perhaps prisoners should not be imprisoned in the first place.

The bottom line is that no one should have to involuntarily take medication — especially when that person is deemed to pose no threat to their surroundings. Of course “threat” is a subjective term, and it’s easy to classify a potential danger as a current one. But in cases like C.S.’— where he was not deemed a present harmful force to other inmates — the answer should be clear. The real threat in prisons is their blindness to the fact that unconsenting medication strips inmates of basic human rights.

Keagan Schlosser ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in communications.


This article was published Apr 16, 2019 at 8:42 am and last updated Apr 14, 2019 at 4:42 pm


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