Those of us who have practiced medicine in jails and prisons (correctional medicine) know this is a great job! We often see patients who have never had easy access to medical care. As a result, we get to diagnose and treat a larger variety of medical diseases than most medical professionals. We get to see the striking improvements our patients make due to our interventions. Since correctional medicine is largely free from traditional government/private insurance, we are freed from ICD-9 codes, diagnostic-related-groups (DRGs), and billing. We work with a disadvantaged and underserved population that appreciates our efforts and are grateful to have us. Our work is emotionally rewarding!
But it is also true that correctional medicine is different in important ways from medical practice “on the outside.” For example, we cannot fire our patients and they cannot fire us. Because of this, we must learn “verbal jiujitsu” skills to effectively communicate without animosity. We also must be scrupulously fair with our patients in a way that simply does not happen on the outside. And, of course, we must practice in a loud, hectic concrete and plexiglass building with TSA style security checks. These differences can be enough to overwhelm some medical newcomers with sensory overload.
The Best of Jail Medicine: An Introduction to Correctional Medicine consists of 47 articles from the popular Jail Medicine blog that discuss must-know aspects of practicing medicine in a jail or prison. Each section contains several articles highlighting a different essential aspect of correctional medicine.
Why Correctional Medicine is a Great Job
Communication with Incarcerated Patients
Unique Operations in Jails and Prisons
Comfort Items: The Special Problem of Correctional Medicine
Treating Withdrawal—Every Time
Issues of Medical Care in Jails and Prisons
In My Opinion
The Best of Jail Medicine: An Introduction to Correctional Medicine is available now on Amazon.com (here)
What do these five patients have in common (Fill in the Blank).
As you arrive to work at a jail medical clinic, you are told about five different jail patients. Each of the five carries a totally different diagnosis, but all have one thing in common.
Patient one is a 52 year old man booked into the jail four days ago for a DUI. He seemed all right for the first two or three days, but now, you are told, he has not eaten anything for 24 hours and last night he ____________________.
Patient two is a 24 year old woman who was arrested yesterday for refusing to leave a grocery store as it was closing. Since her arrival at the jail, you are told, she has been talking non-stop in a very loud voice and last night she _____________ .
Patient three is a 19 year old man who was arrested for drug possession. The deputies have not been able to book him because he also has been talking loudly and nonstop, although, unlike patient number two, his speech is largely non-sensical. But like patient number two, last night he also ________________.
Patient four is a 28 year old homeless man who was arrested two days ago for taking his clothes off in the library. He is cooperative mostly but spends most of his time talking about being spied on by the FBI through the jail loudspeaker. He thinks any food prepared by the jail is poisoned so will only eat pre-packaged commissary items. Last night, he _______________ .
The last patient is a 76 year old man who has been incarcerated in the jail for over six months. He has never caused any trouble in all of that time until last night, when he was incontinent, resisted any efforts to change his clothes, and threatened the deputies. Oh, and also he __________________________.
I’m sure that you have figured out how to fill in the blanks with what these five very different patients have in common. They all did not sleep last night.
Patient number one is going through alcohol withdrawal. If he is disoriented and having “different place” hallucinations plus severe tachycardia, he already has Delirium Tremens and needs to go to the hospital. However, some withdrawal patients will become sleepless before they become delirious and so may be able to be successfully treated at the jail. Either way, the treatment for this patient is benzodiazepines and rehydration. You’ll know you have given him enough Valium or Ativan when he sleeps.
Patient number two is manic. Depending on how cooperative she is and the capabilities of the jail, she also may need urgent evaluation by a psychiatrist. Typical maintenance therapy for her would be a mood stabilizer like Lithium or divalproex. However, an acutely manic patient who is not sleeping may first benefit from an antipsychotic and and a benzodiazepine. First and foremost, she needs to slow down enough to sleep.
Patient number three is high on methamphetamine. The “antidote” to meth toxicity is benzodiazepines. Once he gets enough benzos on board to counteract the meth effects, he will sleep. Whether this takes place at the jail or the hospital depends, again, on how sick he is and the capabilities of the jail.
Patient number four is acutely psychotic. He should receive antipsychotics and, at least initially, benzodiazepines. Since he is paranoid, he may be resistant to taking these voluntarily. A psychiatric consult and court order may be needed to treat him and get him to sleep.
Patient number five is acutely delirious. There can be many causes for this, but in this particular case, the patient is septic from a urinary tract infection. He will need to go to the hospital, where treatment will include antibiotics and benzodiazepines to help him to sleep.
I have often heard jail practitioners say something like “We don’t treat insomnia in our facility.” This is, of course, incorrect. All of these sleepless patients, for example, must be treated and one important guide to the success of the treatment is that each patient goes to sleep. Of course you will treat sleeplessness when medically appropriate to do so!
You might argue that these patients are not really insomniacs; insomnia implies wanting to sleep but being unable to do so. None of these patients complain about not sleeping. In my opinion, this semantic argument misses the point. Our patients need to sleep. We will treat those who are truly not sleeping, from whatever cause. Sleepless is almost always an important symptom pointing to a more serious underlying medical condition.
Since none of these patients will fill out a kite complaining of not sleeping, we medical practitioners have to rely on our deputies and correctional officers to alert us about about patients who are not sleeping. This underscores the importance of training our non-medical coworkers (who are often our eyes and ears) on what conditions and behaviors should be referred to medical.
Personally, even though I get a lot of calls when I am on-call, the problem is that I am not called enough rather than that I get called too much. One reason for this is that correctional officers sometimes have had bad experiences in the past from a cranky practitioner. We need to remember that deputies and correctional officers do not have our medical training and so are going to worry about things that maybe we wouldn’t.
Even if nine calls out of ten are perhaps unnecessary, that tenth call is critically important! Always thank the officer for calling, be kind and follow up.
As always, what I have written here is my opinion, based on my expereince, training and research. I could be wrong!
Please share an experience you have had in your facility with a sleepless patient in comments!
The first patient I am going to see today wrote on his Kite: “I need something to help me sleep.” Over the course of my career in correctional medicine, I have seen literally hundreds of such requests. I have empathy for the patient who submitted this kite. There is no question that it is hard to sleep in a jail.
First, there are the physical impediments to sleep. They never turn the lights all the way off! If you are someone who likes it to be really dark when you go to bed, too bad for you. And it is loud! Most inmates are housed in large dorms with 40-60 (or more) inmates who are talking, snoring, yelling. There are no carpets or drapes to absorb noise, which bounces and echoes in the cavernous concrete space. The large metal doors clang loudly when they close. Even footsteps on the concrete floor are surprisingly loud.
The mattresses and pillows are not designed to be comfortable. They are designed to be secure, i.e. hard to hide contraband in. That means the mattresses and pillows are thin with little padding. Jails are cold, even in the summer, but the blankets are also often thin and may itch to boot. Inmates are not issued two blankets.
Finally (and most importantly for many inmates), there is the mental anguish that prevents sleep. This is an alien and frightening environment. You are sleeping in the same room with 50 other inmates, some of whom can be quite scary. You worry about being away from your family, what will your family and neighbors think, will you lose your job, how will you make bail, what about court, what if I get convicted?
For all of these reasons and more, complaints of insomnia are common in a jail. Jail medical providers need to have a policy or guideline on how to deal with complaints of insomnia. But before I see my first patient who wants a sleeping aid, I need to review the following guiding principles in my mind:
(With regard for The Rules for Treating Benzodiazepine Withdrawal) I practice in a jail on the East Coast. I totally agree that Benzo’s must be used, but I can’t find anything in the literature concerning length of treatment to avoid life-threatening vs. annoying symptoms. The months-long tapers are not well accepted by either Correctional Healthcare companies or Correctional institutions. Most providers here go with a week of tapering diazepam. I usually go with 10-14 days. I would like to try your general formula of choosing the dose of diazepam, then tapering down every 4-6 days. Do you have any literature or expert panel opinion on how long to taper in order to avoid life-threatening consequences? Do you see any benefit to using other meds after the benzo taper simply to decrease annoying symptoms from withdrawal? Steven Wilbraham MD
Thanks for the question, Dr. Wilbraham! Yes, the psychiatry literature talks about tapering benzodiazepines very gradually over many months or even years. But what they are doing is different than what we are doing. They are treating benzodiazepine addiction and we are treating withdrawal with a detoxification protocol. It is analogous to the difference between treating opiate addiction in a methadone clinic (which also can last for months or years) versus what we do when we treat opiate withdrawal for at most a couple of weeks.
Let’s say one of my jail patients has a moderate-sized inguinal hernia. I want to schedule surgery to have the hernia fixed, but to do so, I have to get authorization. This is not unusual. Just like the outside, before I can do medical procedures or order non-formulary drugs, I must get the approval of the entity that will pay the bill. By contract, my jails house inmates from a variety of jurisdictions, such as the Federal Marshals, ICE, the State Department of Corrections and other counties. This process of “Utilization Management” is very similar to getting pre-authorization from an insurance company or Medicaid in the free world, probably because Corrections simply copied the outside pre-authorization process.
Having done this process hundreds of times over the years, both in the free world and in Correctional Medicine, I am struck by a phrase that keeps coming up: “medically necessary.” When authorization for a procedure is denied, the reason often given is that it is “not medically necessary.” I then have to argue that what I am requesting is, indeed, medically necessary. The problem is that there are many possible definitions of “medically necessary,” and I believe many disagreements arise because two parties understand “medical necessity” differently.
I have a ten-year-old Yorkie named Ed. Ed is experienced and knows the daily routine of our house. Last year, we got a Yorkie puppy named Midge. She initially knew nothing. It has been entertaining to watch Ed educate Midge on what to do. Midge watches Ed closely and then does whatever Ed does. She is a true Ed Mini-Me. If Ed lays down, Midge lays down. If Ed asks to go out, Midge wants to go out, too. If Ed begs for a treat, so does Midge.
Since Ed is a pretty good dog, most of what he has taught Midge have been good things, like ask to go outside when you need to potty and sit to say “please” when you want a treat. But Ed also has some bad habits that he has imparted to Midge. Ed still has the Yorkie propensity to yap at the door when the doorbell rings, and so Midge has also learned to also sound the alarm.
Medical education is like this. I remember being a young dog medical intern and watching my heroes, the senior residents. Not everything in medicine is taught in medical textbooks and didactic lectures! Much of what we actually learn as medical practitioners is an imitation of our elders. For example, I watched what the senior residents ate (junk), when they slept (rarely) and how they treated nurses (some good, some poorly), among other things. Like Ed, most of what my senior residents taught me by example was good. But there are a few sketchy practices handed down from medical resident to medical student that can become bad habits.
What is the most common mistake made when treating
withdrawal in a correctional facility?
Consider these two patients:
A jail patient booked yesterday is referred to
medical because of a history of drinking.
He has a mild hand tremor and “the look” of a heavy drinker. But he says
he feels fine and has no complaints. His blood pressure is 158/96 and his heart
rate is 94.
A newly booked jail patient says that she is
going to go through heroin withdrawal. She
is nauseated but still eating and has no gooseflesh or rhinorrhea. Her heart rate mildly elevated.
In many jails, neither of these patients would be started on treatment for withdrawal at their first visit to medical. But this would be a mistake! Both patients should be started on treatment for withdrawal immediately.
The most common mistake made when treating withdrawal in a jail is not to treat the withdrawal at all!
Both of these patients have the potential to slide downhill rapidly. And in both cases, the potential benefits of starting treatment far, far outweigh any potential liability.
I learned about Bounce-Backs back in my Emergency Medicine days. A bounce-back is a patient who you saw in the ER and discharged but then returned within 48 hours with the same complaint. A lot of time is spent in emergency medicine education talking about how to handle bounce-backs. The basic message is “Beware! You may have missed an important diagnosis the first time!”
Bounce-backs happen in correctional medicine, too. Bounce-backs can happen in jails, where we often deal with patients we do not know well. But bounce-backs also happen in prisons, when patients we do know well have a new complaint. Just like in emergency medicine, a bounce-back in a jail or a prison is a patient who comes to the medical clinic with a new complaint, receives a diagnosis and treatment and then re-kites for the same complaint within a couple of days. Here are a couple of examples.
When Covid-19 burst onto the scene three months ago, the jail administrators and the medical teams in my jails initiated several common sense practices to reduce the possibility of Covid infiltrating the jails. These included screening and quarantining new inmates before allowing them into the dorms, screening jail employees daily, doing lots of Covid tests and, perhaps most importantly, having deputies wear masks at work. The good news is that, so far, there have been no cases of Covid-19 in any of my jails (knock on wood here).
However, there seems to be growing evidence of “Covid
Fatigue” in my community. When I go out
in public, I am one of the very few still wearing a mask. And this is unfortunately spilling over to
the correctional facilities. I did a
clinic at one of my smaller jails this week and was surprised and dismayed to
see that the deputies were no longer wearing masks. In the meantime, Community Covid cases are
climbing, so the risk of transmitting Covid to the jail is actually greater
than it was, say, a month ago.
I am seeing a 52-year-old male in my jail medical clinic who
was booked yesterday on a felony DUI charge.
He says he drinks “a lot of beer” but denies having a drinking problem. He is cranky and not really cooperative. He does not want to be here. However, the deputies tell me that he did not
sleep much last night and did not eat breakfast. I note that he has a mild hand tremor and a
heart rate of 108. According to the
clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol–revised version (the most
common tool used in the United States to assess the severity of alcohol
withdrawal since 1989) my patient needs no treatment for alcohol withdrawal. But this is wrong! In actuality, my patient is experiencing
moderate withdrawal and should be treated immediately and aggressively.
Using CIWA is like
using a wrench to pound in a nail. It
can be done, but it is not really efficient or accurate. A different tool (a hammer) could drive the nail
much more quickly and effectively. CIWA is simply not the right tool to assess
alcohol withdrawal. We should be using