What Is Prison Psychiatry?

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  • Written By: Lainie Petersen
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2019
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Prison psychiatry is a medical specialization that focuses on the mental health needs of people who are incarcerated. Depending on the facilities in which they work, prison psychiatrists may assume responsibility for evaluating the mental state of inmates and prescribing medication as well as other treatment for the alleviation of psychiatric symptoms. In some cases, providing therapy may also be a part of prison psychiatry, although therapy is more likely to be provided by counselors and clinical social workers rather than psychiatrists. In some cases, prison psychiatry may be a part of a rehabilitation plan for an inmate, particularly in situations where the inmate has known psychiatric issues prior to entering prison and a judge orders the inmate to comply with a treatment plan.

Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that focuses on evaluating and treating the mental state of its patients. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who complete an extensive residency in psychiatry and who are trained in diagnosing mental illnesses, providing therapy, and prescribing psychiatric medications. As many people in prison have or develop mental illnesses, prison psychiatry is necessary for the protection of inmates and prison staff and is often a crucial aspect of the rehabilitation process.


The availability of prison psychiatry will vary between correctional institutions. In some cases, a prison psychiatrist may have limited interactions with inmates and may act primarily as a consultant to the prison's providers of primary health care. In other places, the psychiatrist may get more involved with inmates, particularly in a situation where an inmate is severely mentally ill or requires ongoing adjustments to his medication regimen. In some cases, prison may be the first time that an inmate has access to psychiatric care and is required to comply with a medication regimen. This can bring about significant changes in an inmate's mental state, which should be monitored by mental health professionals to maximize the chances of effective, ongoing treatment.

In some cases, practitioners of prison psychiatry will be expected to evaluate the behavior of an inmate whose sanity is in doubt or who may soon be transferred to another prison or even released into society. In such cases, the psychiatrist will typically work with prison guards and others who routinely work with the inmate to develop an understanding of the inmate's level of functioning. Depending on the circumstances, the psychiatrist may be able to recommend a plan for ongoing mental health care even after the inmate leaves the facility.


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