The crucial, yet complex challenge of treating incarcerated individuals with mental illness was the focus of a panel presentation hosted by Niagara University’s Ostapenko Center for Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare and the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice on March 16. The virtual discussion featured legal, ethical, medical, and correctional experts who offered insight on the question of whether there were circumstances under which medicating inmates without their consent is legally and ethically acceptable.

The panelists included Kevin Hinkley, assistant professor of political science at NU; Dr. Talia Harmon, professor of criminal justice at NU; Dr. James Delaney, professor of philosophy at NU and director of the Ostapenko Center for Ethics; Captain Darren Engert of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Division; and Dr. Natasha Cervantes, fellowship director at Erie County Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry.

Panelists discussed the concept of patient autonomy in medicine and how it applies to inmates’ right to receive, and refuse, treatment; the staggering number of incarcerated individuals suffering from serious mental illness (estimated at between 15-20%); and court cases involving the forced administration of antipsychotic drugs in situations when it is in the best medical interest of the inmate, when the inmate is determined to be a danger to self or others, and when it is necessary to achieve competency to stand trial or for execution. They also discussed the side effects that inmates can experience from antipsychotic medication, the care the Niagara County jail provides to inmates with mental illness and the training it provides its staff.

An interactive question and answer period followed the panelists’ prepared remarks.

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