“Prisons are loud places: doors slamming, people yelling, guards barking, bells ringing,” said Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State Dr. Anthony Ryan Hatch in the opening of his presentation on the history and use of psychotropics in American prisons. The lecture, Silent Cells: Psychotropics and Intersections of Race, Gender, and Citizenship in American Prisons, was held on Thursday, Nov. 13 and was sponsored by the Science in Society Program.
After providing the audience with a few auditory images of a prison, Hatch went on to describe the uncharacteristic silence that has fallen over some American prison populations since the 1950s. The administration of psychotropic drugs, a classification of prescription drugs that change brain chemistry by acting on the central nervous system, has increased drastically. Major concerns regarding this administration involve the over-medication of those who may not need it as well as a question of whether prisoners can truly give informed consent to participate in clinical trials.
To explain why psychotropics and the American prison system have become so closely linked, Hatch presented a syllogism through a process he calls the “biomedicalization” of crime and mental illness: Criminal Behavior was first classified as a mental illness, and mental illness is classified as a neurobiological problem. Therefore, criminological behavior must also be considered a neurobiological problem and, like mental illnesses, can be treated with psychotropics.
The study of “technocorrections” refers to the use of psychotropics in order to subdue prisoners, regardless of the presence of an actual mental illness. Hatch quoted researcher Tony Fabelo, who has conducted much research in this field.
“These drugs could also be easily used to control mental conditions affecting behaviors considered undesirable, even when the offenders are not mentally ill,” Hatch said.
In the first portion of the presentation, Hatch presented quantitative evidence regarding the use of psychotropic drugs in prisons. Between 1979 and 1991, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of individuals who have taken psychotropic drugs while in prison. Additionally, a disproportionate amount of prison budgets are used to purchase the costly medications.
However, there are gaps in the data that may never be filled.
“There is an unmet need, in a sense,” Hatch said. “What the data cannot show is the number of prisoners who have taken medication while incarcerated but have never been diagnosed with a mental illness.”
He also addressed race with respect to the administration of psychotropics in prison. Black males are incarcerated at a much higher rate than any other race or gender, yet white prisoners are more likely to be administered psychotropic drugs. In women’s prisons, the use of psychotropic drugs for the purpose of subduing inmates is higher than that in men’s prisons.
The next section of the talk dealt with experimental patriots. According to Hatch, major pharmaceutical companies have made participation in the early phases of drug trials very appealing to prisoners, framing it as a way to give back to society. Corporations convinced prison staff that male prisoners were optimal research candidates due to their regulated diets and daily routines. However, Hatch questions whether they could properly give consent. While pharmaceutical companies claim that participation in these trials was a right to which prisoners were entitled, Hatch contested the notion.
“No U.S. court has ever affirmed a right of citizens to participate in research studies,” Hatch said. “In fact in 1944, a U.S. circuit court found that prisoners retain all of the rights of the ordinary citizen except for those explicitly taken away by law…. Inside prisons I speculate that psychotropic drugs are used as a type of biological weapons, a war using drugs.”
Though a document known as the Belmont Report, released in 1980, called for pharmaceutical companies to cease testing of psychotropics on prisoners on the basis of ethics and consent, a report by the Institute of Medicine in 2006 suggested that it was ethical for prisoners to consent to and participate in later stages of trials involving psychotropic drugs under tighter restrictions than before. Both the presenter and Sonya Sternlieb ’18 contest this claim.
“If you’re in that situation, you can’t ever give consent because if you don’t [give consent], there are consequences,” Sternlieb said. “People are signing up [to participate in drug trials] to provide for their families when they aren’t really given any other options. If that’s a need that they still have, then they have to do it, and that’s the only out they’re getting.”
Before concluding his formal presentation, Hatch also spoke about the increased use of psychotropics in other populations, namely the military, nursing homes, and the foster care system. In the military, use of psychotropics has increased 682 percent since 2001, and 1.1 billion dollars had been spent on them through 2009. One fourth of the nursing home population receives psychotropic medication despite not showing any signs of mental illness. Lastly, the prescription of psychotropics for children in the foster care system has increased threefold in the last decade, to seventy percent of minors in foster care.
Upon concluding his presentation, Hatch opened the floor for a question-and-answer session. Gerpha Gerlin ’16 engaged Hatch in a conversation about the possible positive effects of psychotropics on mentally ill prisoners who would not have otherwise had access to them. During her senior year in high school, she had conducted research about the use of psychotropic drugs in prisons in Miami-Dade County.
“My county experiences one of the largest incarceration rates in the South, with many likening the system to some kind of meta-psychiatric ward,” Gerlin wrote in an email to The Argus. “I respect the presenter’s obviously tedious excavations into this kind of history, but I am not certain if his book project can generalize certain statements. I am wary of blanket statements in general, as they might not pay direct respect to nuances in context.”
Hatch stressed that this use of psychotropic drugs in prisons is reminiscent of the inhumane asylums of the past.
“This looks like the definition of progress to me,” Hatch said. “[We are] back to where were just before the Civil War.”