Psychopharmacology in Jails: An Introduction

Buspirone (BuSpar) might seem like a good option as a non-habit forming treatment for anxiety, but it is also abused by jail inmates, though not to the same extent as bupropion. Gabapentin (Neurontin) also has a tendency to be abused, and is not available in many correctional facilities. For medications with potential for abuse or diversion, if you absolutely need to give them, you can either order a liquid formulation, or if there is no liquid form, order it to be crushed and mixed in water or juice (or another medication that is available in liquid form that the patient is also taking) prior to administration.

When it comes to antipsychotic medications, in addition to all of the typical antipsychotics such as fluphenazine (Prolixin) and haloperidol (Haldol), most jails will have on formulary several of the standard atypicals, including aripiprazole (Abilify), olanzapine (Zyprexa), quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal), and ziprasidone (Geodon). You will quickly discover that quetiapine rivals bupropion as an abused medication. Inmates prize its effects on sleep, and it also seems to provide a relaxing effect. Many inmates will claim to have psychotic symptoms in an effort to obtain quetiapine. For some reason, they don’t seem as interested in olanzapine.

Treating psychosis

Sadly, American jails house a significant number of people with schizophrenia (Lamb HR and Weinberger LE, J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 2013;41:287– 293). Many have not committed significant crimes, but have been arrested for minor offenses like trespassing. This population tends to be homeless and to have particularly poor insight into their illness and need for treatment. In order to counter their tendency to “cheek” and then spit out their medications, you will often use liquid or crushed antipsychotics. For similar reasons, the liquid form of the mood stabilizer valproic acid (Depakene) is a good choice in patients with mania, despite being more irritating to the stomach than divalproex sodium (Depakote). In addition, a mood stabilizer like valproic acid/divalproex, or perhaps oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), is often used for inmates who don’t have classic symptoms of bipolar disorder but who are agitated and aggressive, whether due to schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, developmental disability, severe personality disorder, PTSD, or an impulse-control disorder.

What if your patient with psychosis demonstrates poor compliance with medication? If it is a matter of poor insight and lack of motivation to report for pill call, a long-acting injectable antipsychotic may be a good choice. However, it is critical to realize that jail inmates have the same right to refuse medication as any outpatient. Thus, if your patients refuse medication, you won’t be able to force them to comply. Although jails can have varying policies about patients who require involuntary medications, most of the time these patients must be transferred to a hospital setting. If you are working in a large jail, the facility may have a licensed hospital section where patients can be involuntarily hospitalized and given medications.


There are many unique and complicated aspects of diagnosing and prescribing in jail. I touched on some of the more important issues in this article, but space constraints prevented a discussion of managing suicidality, aggression, and detox (for more information on correctional psychiatry, a good resource is Psychiatric Services in Correctional Facilities 3e. American Psychiatric Association. Arlington, VA: 2015). You’ll also learn a lot about treating inmates on the job, especially as you discuss cases with colleagues, including correctional staff, other mental health professionals like psychologists and social workers, and psychiatrists. It’s likely that you will find the work to be intellectually stimulating, extremely interesting, and professionally rewarding.

Case example: Is This Inmate Malingering?

Your patient is a muscular man in his late 40s. He reports that he is hearing and seeing things because he doesn’t have his medications. He is able to engage in conversation, his thought process is linear, and he does not appear distracted by hallucinations. He says his regular medications are “Seroquel, Wellbutrin, Depakote, and Xanax.” He then says that he can’t be housed with anyone else (ie, he needs a single cell) because he becomes paranoid, thinks others are trying to kill him, and would get into a fight with a cellmate.

The patient goes on to tell you that he receives SSI disability for mental illness and lives in a board-and-care home. You quickly scan the electronic medical record of his previous stays in your facility and find that during one of them he was prescribed risperidone. You ask him for more details of his hallucinations. He tells you that when he stares at your desk he sees “strippers,” then starts laughing.

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As you consider your treatment plan, you suspect that there is an element of malingering in the patient’s presentation. He describes atypical visual hallucinations which do not bother him, and his linear thought process and intact attention are not particularly consistent with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Three of the medications he claims to take are notorious drugs of abuse in jail (quetiapine, bupropion, and alprazolam).

On the other hand, he is requesting divalproex sodium, which is not a medication that inmates typically seek out. In addition, he appears somewhat agitated, and his repeated arrests, receipt of SSI, and placement in a board-and-care home suggest genuinely impaired function.

In jail, the distinction between authentic symptoms and malingering is rarely black and white. You decide that the patient is most likely exaggerating the hallucinations and the paranoid ideation in an effort to obtain two things: his preferred medications and a safer housing location. However, you also conclude that he most likely does have some type of treatable condition, perhaps bipolar disorder, antisocial or other personality disorder, and/or an impulse control disorder. Since he mentioned divalproex, you decide to start by prescribing that, with a plan to observe him over time to see if his behavior is more consistent with a genuine psychosis or if it reveals evidence more consistent with exaggerated or manufactured psychotic symptoms.

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 June 27, 2019, from


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