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  • Silent Cells: The Secret Drugging of Captive America by Anthony Ryan Hatch
  • Lucas Richert

Pharmaceuticals, Psychotropics, Modern America, Prison History

Anthony Ryan Hatch, Silent Cells: The Secret Drugging of Captive America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 184 pp.

In Anthony Ryan Hatch's important new monograph, Silent Cells, readers are forced to engage with the uncomfortable truth that psychopharmaceuticals –as well as doctors and pharmacists – have played a critical role in the rise of the American carceral state. It is a compact and complex book that is at once deeply interdisciplinary and relevant to contemporary discussions about mass incarceration. Hatch, an associate professor and Chair of the Science and Society Program at Wesleyan University, makes the case that various psychotropics, including antipsychotics, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and others, have become fundamental to the system of mass incarceration in prisons, but also other kinds of mass captivity. Drugs have become so essential, in fact, that Hatch suggests the U.S. carceral system itself is experiencing a form of institutional addiction. At the outset, Hatch makes clear that he is not particularly concerned with participating in what he calls liberal science; rather, his aim with Silent Cells is to engage in "liberatory social science," meaning he is interested in [End Page 235] critically evaluating the use of drugs in the maintenance of prisons and other institutional settings as well as concerned with advancing alternative models that might undermine the carceral state (p.2). The book is stimulating, and might be best situated in the realm of sociology/STS, and certainly deviates from progressivist accounts of psychopharmacological interventions in American mental health.

According to Hatch, psychotropic drugs manufacture two separate but intertwined kinds of silent cells. One is "at the level of the bodies and brains of captive people." A second level, though, is related to "knowledge about the material effects of those drugs on people" (p.10). He wonders, too, why there is a well-developed literature with respect to the development and use of psychotropics in what he calls "noninstitutionalized free society" but a notable scholarly silence when it comes to prisons? To interrogate such silences and their relationship with various drugs, Hatch employs "historical and comparative analyses of archival, scientific, and policy documents…" (p. 19). In his five-chapter book, he also relies on several significant ideas and theories to advance his overall argument. For instance, necropower holds that governments target, isolate, and herd specific human groups as a means of destroying them – in both mind and body. Hatch also uses the concept of technocorrections, an idea that encapsulates the strategic application of novel technologies to reduce the costs associated with mass incarceration and minimize the risks that prisoners pose to the state.

Two strengths of the book are worth recounting: namely, how drugs are dispensed and the ability of the carceral state to operate without psychotropics. Chapter Two, "The Prison Pharmacy: Auditing Prison Pharmaceutical Regimes," uses state and federal government audits of prison pharmacies as evidence. Hatch reveals the bewilderingly inept record-keeping, minimal safeguards, and ultimately the massive waste of drug products in prisons. As he puts it, such pharmacies were a "management nightmare." These findings deserve to be understood better, not just by social scientists and historians but also pharmacists and policy-makers. Hatch's final chapter, called "Overdose," suggests that American custodial institutions are themselves psychotropic addicts and would cease to function in their absence – and he extends the problem beyond the walls of the prison-industrial complex. Psychotropics are used with respect to immigrant detainees and enemy combatants, meaning the military and agencies of the state are reliant on various types of mindaltering drugs. Yet, he offers solutions for recovery. Hatch concludes that, somewhat paradoxically, more state surveillance and increased transparency of drug use in institutional settings would actually lead to institutional sobriety. It is an unexpected and solution-oriented twist at the finale of what is largely a shocking and discouraging tale about biomedicine's underpinning of the U.S. carceral state. Silent Cells is an valuable addition to the understanding of psychopharmaceuticals after World War II. [End Page 236]

Lucas Richert
University of Wisconsin-Madison


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pp. 235-236
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