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February 2, 2014

Prison data reveals disorders are severe for many mentally ill inmates

NORMAN — Two times a day, seven days a week, hundreds of prisoners at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington break into four lines to receive medications from prison staff.

There is Thorazine and Geodon for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Wellbutrin for depression and Trilafon for schizophrenia. Inmates step up to get one or more drugs in a paper cup, pop them into their mouth, and must prove they swallowed them by opening their mouth again for inspection. “Cheeking” a pill to trade later results in discipline.

In corrections facilities statewide, of the 10 psychiatric medications the Department of Corrections spent the most on in 2013, seven were antipsychotics and three were anti-depressants, according to data obtained by Oklahoma Watch. The total cost of all such drugs was at least $1.3 million, or 52 percent more than in 2010.

The breakdown indicates that many Oklahoma inmates who need mental-health treatment are suffering from serious disorders, not just mild forms of depression or the “blues” about being locked up. And the number of mentally ill prisoners is rising.

In the past five years, the percentage of incarcerated inmates diagnosed with mental illness has nearly doubled, from 20 percent to 36 percent, according to department figures, further straining the agency’s budget, low staffing levels and available bed space. The number of inmates on psychotropic medications has climbed by 50 percent since 2007, to 6,200 last year, data shows.

Use of medications has not been controversial among corrections experts or prisoner advocates. Representatives of ACLU Oklahoma and Oklahoma CURE, a prison-rights group, said their organizations have not received complaints about widespread misuse of psychiatric drugs to manage prisoners.

The drugs are dispensed to address specific diagnosed problems, not to put inmates in a zombie-like state, corrections officials say. The effectiveness of some drugs, such as generic Wellbutrin XL, have been questioned by researchers, but loss of psychotropic drugs would be “catastrophic” for the inmates and the prison system, said the corrections department’s chief mental health officer, Janna Morgan.

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