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A review of policies on the involuntary use of psychotropic medications among persons experiencing incarceration in the United States



In Harper v. Washington (1990), the United States Supreme Court established the right of states to involuntary medicate incarcerated individuals in emergency situations without a court order. The extent to which states have implemented this in correctional facilities has not been well characterized. This exploratory qualitative study sought to identify state and federal corrections policies relating to involuntary psychotropic medication for individuals who are incarcerated and classify them by scope.


State Department of Corrections (DOC) and Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policies relating to mental health, health services, and security were collected between March and June 2021 and coded using Atlas.ti software. The primary outcome was whether states allowed emergency involuntary use of psychotropic medications; secondary outcomes pertained to use of restraint and "use of force" policies.


Of the 35 states plus the Federal BOP that made policies publicly available, 35 out of 36 (97%) allowed the involuntary use of psychotropic medications in emergency situations. The extent of detail contained in these policies varied, with 11 states providing minimal information to guide use. One state (3%) did not allow public review of "use of restraint" policies, and 7 states (19%) did not allow public review of "use of force" policies.


More explicit criteria for emergency involuntary use of psychotropic medications are needed to better protect individuals who are incarcerated, and states should provide more transparency regarding use of restraint and use of force in corrections.

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