Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Clink Responds

In my post “Who Is A Criminal?” one anonymous commenter posted a link to a newspaper story about a former musician who died of benzodiazepine withdrawal in a Cleveland jail. The anonymous commenter wondered what I thought about the story.

Over the course of the years it's not unusual for people to send me links, both on and off the blog, to stories about horrible things that have happened in a jail or prison and to ask my opinion about it. The link usually comes in an email with the subject heading, "Can you believe this???" or "Does this really happen???" The expectation seems to be that I'm supposed to either share their outrage or else defend some obviously horrible outcome.

I do neither, mainly because I don't know anything particular about the case in the media. I do know that the full story never gets reported because facility administrators and staff are bound by confidentiality (or by their attorneys) so the only information public hears about is the horrible stuff.

That being said, Anonymous Commenter followed up the comment with a few specific good questions that I'm answering here.

The Anonymous Questions are:

1. Is what happened to Sean Levert a symptom, in your view, of a tendency by prison administrators to treat psychiatric illnesses as not 'real' -- or was it an exception to the norm?

Clink responds: I can't comment on the Levert case specifically since I don't know the facts of the case. Most prison officials and correctional officers I've worked with don't have any trouble acknowledging that psychosis is a real illness. Sometimes they (and my patients) aren't always up to date regarding information about the medical nature of clinical depression and I've educated people about that.

2. The new Cuyahoga jail policy includes weaning prisoners off benzodiazepines. What's your take on this -- considering that these are relatively short-term prisoners, is it appropriate for a clink shrink to change the drug therapy? Is it appropriate for a shrink to go along with a policy designed, it would seem, less on therapeutic reasons than on convenience to the prison?

Clink responds: Correctional psychiatrists don't prescribe based on length of time in jail because we don't have any way of knowing who the short-timers are. We don't generally know trial dates, pretrial hearing dates, parole or probation hearing dates or mandatory release dates. Regarding prescribing practices, I blogged about this quite a while ago in my post "Change Is Good" so I won't be completely repetitive here. The short story is that there are valid clinical reasons to change someone's medicine that have nothing to do with cost or policy. Medication needs change depending on the environment. Someone with diabetes will need less insulin in a hospital because he'll be getting a controlled diabetic diet and won't have access to off-diet goodies. Prisoners will need less (and sometimes no) medication once they are abstinent from drugs and alcohol in a controlled environment. Sometimes the free society treatment is being provided by a non-psychiatrist and it just frankly doesn't make sense or is inadequate. There are too many hypothetical possibilities to cover them all, but those are the most common reasons why I change medications. The other thing to be aware of---and this is a bit different from free society medicine---is that you're not prescribing for an individual, you're prescribing for an institution. Anything you give to one inmate will eventually end up in the hands of another. For example, if you use tricyclic antidepressants liberally as a sleeping pill you will eventually have an institution filled with medication that is potentially lethal in overdose. Or that can be bad for someone with liver disease (and lots of my folks have hepaitits). There are valid institutional reasons for certain prescribing policies.

3. If a prisoner comes in with a current diagnosis, how much weight do you give that in determining your treatment? Do you defer to the previous doctor, or consider yourself to be starting from scratch?

Clink responds: It depends upon who gave the current diagnosis. First of all, most of my patients weren't getting treatment prior to incarceration. And for those who say they were in treatment, in the majority of cases that treatment can't be confirmed. I once scrupulously collected records for my patients for about four months, when I was new to corrections. Eventually I found that record collection was a futile activity for three reasons: 1. Most of my releases were returned with the comment 'unable to locate patient'---ie., they were never in treatment like they said they were, 2. The records gave me information I already knew from taking a history, and 3. The information I needed wasn't in the documentation because the discharge summary was dictated by a ward social worker or nurse (and only signed by the psychiatrist) and didn't contain the basis for the diagnosis. So, regarding the weight given to previous diagnosis: If I know the doctor and trust their clinical skills I give significant weight to that. If I've never heard of the person before, or if the patient is completely new to me (never seen during previous incarceration) then I start from scratch. If anything the patient tells me suggests that his clinical circumstances have changed, or if he doesn't seem to be responding to appropriate treatment, I restart from scratch. If there's something about the clinical picture that is inconsistent, I rethink the diagnosis. Clinical circumstances change over time, symptoms can change over time, new information can appear or develop so you just keep an open mind. A psychiatry professor I respect once said (on this podcast) that "A good clinician is someone who makes prudent decisions based on insufficient information". In other words, no clinician every has an entirely complete database to work from so you do the best you can with what you've got.

OK, I hope that answers the Anonymous Questioner. Those were good questions.