Ask the Health Law Gurus™: Can a Prison Forcibly Medicate an Inmate with a Psychotropic Drug against the Inmate’s Will?

June 22, 2016 | By Lawrence J. Tabas

Question: Can a Pennsylvania prison forcibly administer a psychotropic medication to an inmate against the inmate’s will?

Answer: In Pennsylvania, a prison’s ability to forcibly medicate an inmate with a psychotropic drug depends upon the circumstances and whether the circumstances constitute an extreme emergency. However, in the majority of cases, prisons must follow a formal procedure before medication can be administered against an inmate’s will.

Generally speaking, neither the prison nor third party care providers acting on behalf of the prison may administer psychotropic medications against an inmate’s will unless the prison follows the procedures set forth in Pennsylvania’s Mental Health Procedures Act. Before a prison may forcibly administer psychotropic medications, it must petition the Court of Common Pleas and obtain an order from the Mental Health Review Officer for involuntary commitment. 37 Pa. Code § 95.243. The significance of such an order is that it is a limited adjudication of the inmate’s incompetency to make treatment decisions. If the prison is granted such an order from the Mental Health Review Officer, the prison will transfer the inmate to a mental health unit (“MHU”).

If the psychiatrist in the MHU determines the inmate is in need of psychotropic medication, the inmate will be given the opportunity to voluntarily accept the prescribed psychotropic medication. If the inmate continues to refuse the medication, a second psychiatrist must be called to conduct an independent examination of the inmate and his/her medical record to determine if medication is necessary. If the second psychiatrist does not confer as to the necessity of treatment, the psychotropic medication may not be administered unless a third psychiatrist conducts an independent examination and concurs that the psychotropic medication is necessary.

In the case of extreme emergency, the prison may order the involuntary administration of psychotropic medication before seeking consultation with, and receiving a concurring opinion from, two psychiatrists.

Please note that this post is only a brief summary. To read more about the process for the administration of involuntary psychotropic medication to inmates in Pennsylvania, see Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Policy Number 13.8.1, available here.

About the Authors

Lawrence J. Tabas


Lawrence is the Chair for Obermayer’s Health Care Law Department and Election Law Practice Group. Lawrence’s Health Care Law legal experience includes the representation of Pennsylvania County governments in Behavioral Health Managed...

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