Last week’s post described the epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the United States and the impact on the nation’s jails and prisons. This week we return to the same subject but focus on the problem of prescription drug diversion during incarceration. There are many more medications available and appropriate to be used in treatment today than when I started in nursing 40 years ago. Just to illustrate there were an average of 13 prescriptions written in 2011 for every person in the United States. At one of the jails I am familiar with an average of 24 prescriptions per inmate are filled each month.
Most correctional facilities allow some medications to be taken by inmates on their own as directed by the provider. This is usually called a “self-carry” or “keep on person” program. Virtually all facilities also require that certain medication be administered to inmates. These medications usually have potential for misuse (narcotics) or are medication regimes that require close monitoring (TB prophylaxis). The volume of medications handled daily in correctional facilities is substantial.
Nearly 85% of incarcerated adults in the United States have a substance use disorder and four out of five crimes committed by youth involve substance abuse (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse 2010, 2004). Some misuse of prescription drugs takes place simply because access to illegal drugs is so greatly limited during incarceration. Incarceration also brings other discomforts such as insomnia, pain, anxiety and boredom. Inmates may request medication from health care staff; they may also simply take or trade for someone else’s medication in an effort to alleviate problems like these. As correctional health care professionals we all have experience with patients who feign an illness or symptom to get a prescription for a preferred medication. Prescription medication has a value in prison or jail that is greater than in the general community (Phillips 2014).
Diversion and misuse of prescription medication is as much a clinical problem as a custodial one. If patients are bullied or coerced into giving up needed medication their condition may deteriorate. The provider may prescribe higher doses or additional intervention to treat a condition that appears unimproved when instead the patient was not treated effectively in the first place. In addition inmates who take someone else’s medication are not monitored clinically and expose themselves to potential for adverse reaction or other injury.
Methods to prevent or mitigate diversion
- Formulary controls: Often the first reaction to counter diversion is to ban prescription of the drug in the first place. The problem with this approach is that once a particular drug is banned another becomes the drug of choice for misuse. Secondly there are appropriate clinical indications for these medications and not allowing their use is to deny medically necessary care. It is possible to designate a particular drug as a non-formulary item that requires additional rationale and review before it can be issued. An example of this is that many facilities have made bupropion a non-formulary anti-depressant and thus limited its use (Phillips 2012). It is also possible to designate a certain housing location with greater supervision and control for patients receiving drugs at high risk for diversion. For example some facilities require patients to be admitted to the infirmary in order to receive treatment with an opiate analgesic.
- Choice of preparation: Another action is to administer the drug in a way that limits the possibility of diversion. Choices include ordering the drug in a liquid, aerosol or injectable preparation or that the tablet be “crushed and floated” (Bicknell et.al. 2011). Challenges are that these methods are either more expensive or time consuming to administer. A policy to “crush and float” an entire class of drugs (i.e. psychotropics) is not advised since the effectiveness and safety of some medications may be altered. Nurses expose themselves to liability if they “crush and float” medications against manufacturer advice (Phillips 2012).
- Increased multidisciplinary communication: Communication between providers, nurses and custody staff about prescription drug abuse generally and the importance of each method used to minimize diversion will reinforce the roles of each (Phillips 2014). Both correctional officers and nurses have responsibilities to ensure that inmates take medications as prescribed. These include maintaining orderliness during medication administration, monitoring ingestion, observing individual inmates for intended and unintended effects of medication. Correctional officers should be invited to provide information about behavior that suggests coercion by others or diversion. Providers and nurses may ask correctional officers about their observations of an inmate’s behavior to help with diagnosis or clinical monitoring. Random cell searches by correctional staff and periodic review of adherence by nursing staff are very helpful in identifying inmates who are diverting medication. Recently a facility changed their procedure for medication administration to include checking an inmate’s hands as well as their mouth before leaving the medication area. This change was made after discussion with an inmate who was found trading medication. The provider asked the inmate how he managed to get the medication and he gladly demonstrated his sleight of hand. It was an educational experience for all the staff and improved the methods used to control diversion at the facility.
- Caring for patients: Proactive identification and preventive treatment of inmates withdrawing from use of illicit drugs is an important first step in reducing diversion. This includes programming and targeted education to build alternative coping skills and recovery (Phillips 2012).Indications that a patient may be “at risk” of diverting prescribed medication include:
- Requesting a particular drug by name before describing symptoms
- Objective data about the patient’s condition is inconsistent with the description of symptoms
- Refusal or non-adherence with other drugs prescribed for the condition
- Claiming allergies or side effects to other possible drugs without being able to provide specific detail
- Not remembering or being able to pronounce drugs other than the preferred drug
- Threatening or other signs of excessive distress when the requested drug is not prescribed (Phillips 2012, 2014).
The nurse should be observant for these behaviors when seeing patients in sick call, nurse clinics or during medication administration, document the findings in the inmate’s health record and inform the patient’s prescribing provider. This information is more helpful to the treating provider when it is descriptive rather than judgmental. Nurses should also discuss with patients the potential for victimization when taking medication, the adverse outcomes of prescription drug abuse as well as steps to protect the inmate. This discussion is most effective if it is specific to the patient, the drug and their behavior rather than more general information.
Medications with high diversion value in the correctional setting
Click on this link to a table Common Prescription Medications- Use and Misuse which lists the prescription medications that are commonly misused or abused by inmates. The table also lists the purpose each drug is usually prescribed for as well as the reason for its misuse. During administration or when working with patients to self-administer these drugs nurses should be hyper-vigilant for possible diversion. Please remember though that any prescription medication can be misused if there is a belief that the drug will produce some desired effect.
What have you learned about diversion of prescribed medications at your correctional facility that has not been discussed here? Are there methods to prevent diversion not discussed here that should be? Please share your opinions and experience by responding in the comments section of this post.
Anthony Tamburello, MD, FAPA, Statewide Associate Director of Psychiatry, Rutgers University Correctional Health Care in New Jersey provided much of this information in a continuing education presentation for nurses and was willing to share it for use in this post. Also correctional physicians in the United Kingdom have published Safer Prescribing in Prisons: Guidance for Clinicians a thoughtful and well organized on-line resource. For more on correctional nursing read our book, the Essentials of Correctional Nursing. Order your copy directly from the publisher. Use promotional code AF1209 for $15 off and free shipping.
Bicknell, M., Brew, I., Cooke, C., Duncall, H., Palmer, J., Robinson, J. (2011) Safer Prescribing in Prisons: Guidance for Clinicians. Royal College of General Practitioners, Secure Environments Group. Accessed at http://www.rpharms.com/news-story-downloads/prescribinginprison.pdf.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014) Prescription Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet. Accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/overdose/facts.html.
Kirschner, N., Ginsburg, J., Sulmasy, L. S., (2014) Prescription Drug Abuse: Executive Summary of a Policy Position from the American College of Physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine 160 (3).
Laffan, S. (2013) Alcohol and Drug Withdrawal in Schoenly, L. & Knox, C.M. (ed.) Essentials of Correctional Nursing, pp. 81- 96, (New York: Springer Publishing Company LLC).
National Commission on Correctional Health Care. (Prisons and Jails 20014). Standards for Health Services. National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
Phillips, A. (2014) Prescribing in prison: complexities and considerations. Nursing Standard 28 (21): 46-50.
Phillips, D. (2012) Wellbutrin®: Misuse and abuse by incarcerated individuals. Journal of Addiction Nursing, 23: 65-69.
Tamburello, A. (n.d.) Prescription Medication Abuse. Presentation for University Correctional Health Care. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Personal correspondence dated 6/17/2014.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2010). Behind bars II: Substance abuse and America’s prison population. New York, NY: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Retrieved from http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/substance-abuse-prison-system-2010.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2010). Criminal neglect: Substance abuse, juvenile justice and the children left behind. New York, NY: The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Retrieved from http://www.casacolumbia.org/addiction-research/reports/substance-abuse-juvenile-justive-children-left-behind.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Behavioral Health Coordinating Committee, Prescription Drug Abuse Subcommittee, (2013) Addressing Prescription Drug Abuse in the United States: Current Activities and Future Opportunities. Accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/overdose/hhs_rx_abuse.html.
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