Psychopharmacology in Jails: An Introduction

Psychopharmacology in JailsIf you are interested in part-time correctional work, the best place to start is often the local jail—as opposed to a prison. What’s the difference between the two? A jail is a criminal justice facility operated by a city or county. It houses people who are awaiting trial or who have received short sentences, typically one year or less. In contrast, a prison is operated by a state (or the federal government) and houses inmates who are usually serving long sentences for felonies. Virtually every county has some type of jail facility, often located in large cities. Prisons, on the other hand, are usually remote from urban centers, making part-time employment less feasible.

There is a high demand for psychiatric care in U.S. correctional facilities. At any given time, about 1% of the adult population is incarcerated (Appelbaum PS, Psychiat Serv 2011;62:1121–1123), and many of them have a psychiatric disorder of some sort. One study found that 49% of jail inmates had symptoms of both mental illness and a comorbid substance abuse disorder (James DJ and Glaze LE, Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics; 2006., while other studies have found rates of severe mental disorders, including psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, and major depression, ranging from 10% to 27% of jail and prison inmates (Lamb HR et al, Psychiat Serv 2007;58:782–786).

Diagnostic challenges

Jail psychiatry tends to be fast-paced; for example, your initial intake interview will probably be 30 minutes or less with each new patient. Newly arrived inmates are often very tired and irritated. Many were homeless and abusing drugs or alcohol prior to arrest, and have spent hours waiting in lines, holding tanks, or court lock-ups. They may be very annoyed about having been arrested. By the time they cross your path a day or two after being picked up by the police, they often don’t want to engage in a lengthy interview. This reluctance may continue at your followup visits, when you will have even less time to spend with them.

Diagnosing jail inmates poses special challenges. There are various complicating factors, including severe and chronic substance abuse, medical comorbidities, developmental delay and/or low education, personality disorders, and secondary gain issues. While many inmates are legitimately in need of psychiatric care, you will run across others who do not have severe mental illness or even any diagnosis, but who are embellishing, exaggerating, or outright manufacturing psychiatric symptoms for a variety of reasons. The motivations for this kind of malingering vary. Medication-seeking is common, though you might be surprised at what medications are abused in jail—more on that later. Some inmates may also view you as a way to receive a diagnosis that might shield them from impending punishment for an infraction of jail rules. Others may be hoping you can get them moved to a different part of the jail to avoid threats from other inmates or for opportunities to pass along messages.

Jailhouse prescribing: Art and science

There is one key factor that makes prescribing in a jail setting more challenging than prescribing in a community environment: The selection of medications in your toolbox is severely limited. Given the high rates of substance abuse disorders in the incarcerated population, you will rarely, if ever, prescribe potentially abused drugs. This issue is most relevant to patients who present with ADHD, anxiety, or insomnia.


ADHD in jail inmates may be left untreated as many jails won’t allow you to prescribe stimulants. Atomoxetine (Strattera) is a potential choice, although it may not be on formulary, thus requiring the prescriber to go through a prior approval process. Off-label alternatives, such as venlafaxine (Effexor), are sometimes helpful, especially if a patient has both ADHD and depression or anxiety.

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Anxiety and insomnia

Avoid benzodiazepines due to their high risk of abuse and diversion. For anxiety (and depressive symptoms), your primary go-to meds will be selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) such as sertraline (Zoloft) and citalopram (Celexa), as well as the non-SSRI mirtazapine (Remeron). While waiting for these to start working in an anxious patient, you might offer antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or hydroxyzine (Atarax, Vistaril). These are also commonly used to treat insomnia. High doses of diphenhydramine, up to 150 mg or even 200 mg qhs, are surprisingly well-tolerated by many inmates— perhaps because many have abused sedating substances in the past and have developed tolerance to their effects. You will have to be cautious about prescribing trazodone to a male inmate, due to the risk of a delay in access to appropriate medical care if the inmate develops priapism. Obviously, this is not a concern for female inmates.

On the topic of sexual side effects, you will discover that many male inmates, especially the younger ones, are particularly bothered by the sexual dysfunction induced by SSRIs. For this reason, you are likely to find that you are prescribing mirtazapine much more than you do in your community practice. Many inmates appreciate its sedating qualities, and they often do not mind the side effect of increased appetite. These factors are less relevant for female inmates, who for the most part do not care about decreased libido while in jail, but who are just as concerned about weight gain as are women in the community.

Commonly abused medications

At this point, you may be wondering why I have not mentioned bupropion (Wellbutrin) as an option either for depression or as a non-stimulant alternative for ADHD. While bupropion does not hold much attraction as a drug of abuse in the “free world,” it is one of the most commonly abused medications in jails and prisons. Inmates stockpile doses to take several at once, sometimes crushing the pills and snorting them, to obtain an amphetamine-like high. Bupropion is so sought-after that it is a form of currency, bartered like cigarettes once were before the smoke-free era. For this reason, most jail psychiatrists are very wary of prescribing it, and some institutions have removed it from their formularies. Venlafaxine (Effexor) can also be abused for a stimulant-like rush, but this is significantly less common and only the more savvy inmates are aware of the abuse potential.

Psychopharmacology in Jails: An Introduction

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This article was published in print May 2016 in Volume:Issue 14:5.


APA Reference
Simpson,, J. (2018). Psychopharmacology in Jails: An Introduction. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 Mar 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Mar 2018
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