Incarceration, a practice that produces and exacerbates mental unwellness, is the ideal market for selling psychiatric meds. 


by Boké Saisi

Large corporations that own brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Revlon, Old Navy and McDonald’s have come under public scrutiny for using Black and racialized prison labour to manufacture their commodities. Little attention, however, has been paid to Big Pharma’s predatory profiteering from prison labour and the practice of incarceration itself.

The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is a structure that monetizes the warehousing of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC). Big Pharma facilitates the caging of BIPOC, largely through psychotropic/ psychiatric medication. Incarceration, a practice that produces and exacerbates mental unwellness, is the ideal market for selling psychiatric meds. 

Given the history of medical experimentation on incarcerated people in general, and the testing of psychiatric medication in particular,  it’s clear that Big Pharma continues to rely on the anti-Black practices central to incarceration. Social scientific research maintains that upwards of 73 percent of people incarcerated in women’s prisons are “mentally ill” and are therefore prescribed psychotropic drugs as a form of mental health “care.” 

The problem with these research findings is that they reproduce ideals of biological determinism–that disregard the social and environmental factors that produce distress in the first place. When we complicate the insistence that mental unwellness is simply “in the brain” and can be “fixed” by medication, mental health “care” in prisons starts to look a lot like the hyper-consumption of psychiatric pharmaceuticals. Mad activist frameworks insist that this complication is made abundantly clear.

Psychiatric medications sold by Big Pharma to prisons can rightfully be used to aid in alleviating moments of distress. However, if deemed a necessity for the “maintenance of order in the prison environment,” psychotropics are also easily dispensed in an attempt to control the behavior of inmates. Overmedication of psychotropics is a well documented practice in prisons, with prison employees regularly “prescribing” medications themselves, instead of medical doctors.

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The increased vulnerability in women’s prisons is particularly problematic as it inherently produces gender, sexual, and physical violence. People in women’s prisons are already pathologized and punished for exhibiting behaviours not ascribed to femininity (i.e. docility, heterosexuality). The history of gendered pathologization in psychiatric practice builds on this pathologization. 

All the volumes of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM)–a primary text in psychiatry and psychology– are full of examples that mark behaviours and expressions that do not align with heteropatriarchy as ‘disorders’ to be ‘treated’ with medication. These many diagnoses were created at a historical moment that simultaneously saw the rise of the mainstream use of psychiatric medications and the emergence of mass incarceration. That relationship is far from coincidental.

The majority of early testing of psychiatric medications in the 1930s and 1940s were done on incarcerated people. Between 1962-1980 at least 90 per cent psychiatric testing was done on incarcerated people–or in other words Black people. Medical experimentation on Black people has a long sordid history, from the Tuskegee Experiments to dermatological testing coming out of the University of Pennsylvania. 

Psychiatric medication testing has been a staple for the consolidation of wealth for pharmaceutical corporations for a century. A 2007 quarterly report published by the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) about juvenile justice indicates the creation of a psychotropic study to be conducted on incarcerated children. Children in migrant detention prisons are currently being given psychiatric medications, prescribed by doctors receiving kickbacks from Big Pharma. 

The makers of Seroquel, Latuda, and Zoloft–Astrazeteca, Sunovion, and Pfizer, respectively–are a small number of corporations that profit from the overmedication of incarcerated persons and presumably drug related testing. This medication–under the auspices of psychiatric “expertise,” is fallaciously framed as mental health care. Since incarceration produces and exacerbates mental unwellness, releasing incarcerated people would seem like a clear way to prevent– as opposed to “treat”–mental distress, but that would cut into the profit margins of pharmaceutical tycoons.

 Examining the relationship between Big Pharma, institutionalized psychiatry, and the prison industry is a necessary component in education, community organizing and political engagement. In order to disrupt and encourage divestment from prisons, we first have to know what these industries are complicit in. 

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The abolishment of prisons requires a critique of institutionalized psychiatry. Given the fact that incarcerated persons are especially exposed to pharmaceutical and state sanctioned violence, it is the duty of pharmaceutical industries to transparently pinpoint their collusion with the police and prison state. 

The stories of incarcerated peoples’ experiences of being medicated–as scholar and abolitionist Angela Davis has highlighted in her own experiences of incarceration–are central to challenging those making big money off of the lives of BIPOC held in cages. An abolitionist praxis that centers disrupting the myriad violences produced by incarceration must now also include the violences manufactured by Big Pharma, as well as the institutions that produce and encourage profit from it. We can no longer leave these realities out of our focus on prison abolition. 

 Boke Saisi is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies and Graduate Specialization in Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She previously graduated with an MA in Ethnic Studies from UCSD, an MA in Communication and Culture from York University in Toronto, Canada, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Her research and writing interests include Black feminist thought, Indigenous and decolonial feminisms, critical gender studies, mad studies, critical disability studies, carceral studies, media, and political economy.