The Miami Herald – May 28, 2011
By Fred Grimm
A relatively small percentage of young inmates pumped full of pills actually suffer from the serious psychiatric disorders that the FDA allows to be treated by these powerful drugs. But adult doses of anti-psychotic drugs have a tranquilizing effect on teenage prisoners. Prescribing anti-psychotics for so many rowdy kids may be a reckless medical practice, but in an era of budget cuts and staffing shortages, it makes for smart economics.
Florida fairly inundates juvenile offenders with this stuff.
The Palm Beach Post reported last week that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has been buying twice as many doses of the powerful anti-psychotic Seroquel as it does ibuprofen. As if the state anticipated more outbreaks of schizophrenia than headaches or minor muscle pain.
The Post found that Florida purchased 326,081 tablets of Seroquel, Abilify, Risperdal and other antipsychotic drugs during a two-year period for the boys and girls who occupy the 2,300 beds in state-run residential facilities. (Most of the state’s juvenile offenders are held in jails operated by for-profit contractors. Records revealing the quantity of medications that private companies pour down their prisoners’ gullets were not available.)
Such drugs, meant for adults, are known to send children into suicidal despair, along with risking heart problems, weight gain, diabetes and facial tics. Yet, the DJJ and its contract psychiatrists push them willynilly onto their young wards.
It’s not as if state officials have been unaware of the risks facing children prescribed “off label” uses (unapproved by the FDA) of these pharmaceuticals. Even as the state doled out Seroquel like candy to kids in DJJ jails, the Florida Attorney General’s office was entering into a lawsuit with 36 other states against drug manufacturer AstraZeneca for promoting dangerous, off-label uses of Seroquel for treating both the young and the elderly. (AstraZeneca agreed to settle the lawsuit in March for $68.5 million and to stop marketing the drug for unauthorized uses.)
It was as if the schizophrenics most in need of Seroquel were roaming the halls of government, not the juvenile jails.
“This is the face of all these budget cuts; what happens when you eliminate social workers and prison guards,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. He suspects that DJJ has compensated for the staff shortages at state lockups by pumping “the most powerful drugs known to man into children who have not been diagnosed for psychiatric problems.”
Finkelstein says he assigned two of his staff attorneys last week to visit juvenile lock-ups and investigate what he calls the “zombification” of young offenders who had been represented by his office.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi opened her own investigation last week. Bondi’s staff attorneys are interested in the Post’s report that psychiatrists prescribing off-label uses of such astounding quantities of the profitable anti-psychotics for DJJ prisoners (at taxpayer expense) had been greased by drug manufacturers with some $250,000 in gifts and speaking fees.
The DJJ drug scandal seems all the more maddening considering that it follows a similar uproar just two years ago after the suicide of a seven-year-old Margate foster child. Young Gabriel Myers had been given adult dosages of three anti-psychotics before he hung himself.
The Gabriel Myers Task Force, made up of child advocates, state officials, political leaders and judges from across the state, spent a year investigating whether the Florida Department of Children and Families had administered dangerous drugs as “chemical restraints” for troublesome foster children.
Foster kids, as it turned out, weren’t the only victims of the on-the-cheap ethic. But don’t think of children reduced to zombies. Think of all the money we save on prison guards.