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Prisoners With Migraine

Despite migraine never making an appearance in “Orange is the New Black,” I think about it every single episode. The cinder block walls and concrete floors off which every sound reverberates, the flickering overhead fluorescent tube lights, and the cacophony of smells from hundreds of people crammed together would add up to a migraine hell. Imagining having a migraine in that environment makes my stomach roil in fright.

Even more terrifying is acknowledging that many prisoners must endure migraine attacks in those very conditions. Knowing that some previous rulings have declared withholding migraine medication from prisoners to be cruel and unusual punishment is of some comfort, but that only helps the prisoners who have already found an effective treatment.1

How many prisoners have accurate diagnoses and have access to effective abortive medications? Are their symptoms dismissed as “just a headache”? How many have severe chronic migraine that’s untouched by medication? Are preventive medications even an option?

The question that haunts me the most is how many prisoners within those cinder block walls live through the same debility of my sickest days? When my migraines were at their most severe, I lived in a comfortable apartment, I had excellent medical care, my husband had a good job, and my friends and family came to help. It was still horrible beyond all imagining. If I’d been that sick while in prison, I don’t think I would have survived.

Some people may dismiss these musings as my bleeding heart, saying imprisoned migraineurs are getting the punishment they deserve. No one “deserves” migraine and no one deserves to be forced to endure it in such a harsh, discomfiting place. My heart aches for anyone who must.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Oltman, M. Withholding Migraine Treatment: Cruel and Unusual.; retrieved Jan. 31.2014.


  • snowshoes
    5 years ago

    Hi Kerrie,
    Thanks for the great post! I am a nurse who works in a large state prison clinic. I can pass on my personal experiences about your observation.
    This population may be a hard group for many to advocate for. They aren’t necessarily people who would be as compassionate as you are in considering anyone else’s comfort, much less their misery, including suffering with migraines. I agree with you that “no one deserves migraine … or to deserves to endure it in such a harsh place”. Thank God that I know that the penal system in this country does not view it as punishment or allow inmates to suffer as a deterrent to commit future crimes, as another poster speculated. That would be inhumane.
    The institution I work for has medical providers on staff every day, and the night staff has measures in place to intervene when needed. The inmates with diagnosed migraine have medications available to accommodate their episodes when they happen. Some are allowed to keep their over-the-counter medications with them, such as Tylenol, ibuprofen, or Excedrin. They cannot keep pain medications or anything they can use as barter or that might be stolen from them in their cells. If they use triptans, they can get a correction officer to escort them to the clinic to receive their injection or tablet at the time they need it. There are anti-nausea medications available for them as well. There are three scheduled medication passes, institution wide,so there are opportunities for them to get prescribed preventative meds at those times. If the headaches are not controlled, they can be brought to the clinic for further treatment/evaluation.
    Now their living conditions don’t change. The lighting can be harsh, and often it can be noisy as well. I have seen them with towels wrapped around their heads or draped strategically to soften the light. If they are allowed, many can have music players with earbuds if that helps. On a rare occasion, I have seen an inmate in a cell alone with no light on, but this could be a security risk for officers if it wasn’t truly validated.
    Inmates typically get what is called “essential” medical and dental care. They are treated for acute and chronic medical problems but don’t typically have access to private physicians or get to request their own labs and tests. The providers at the institution determine and prioritize their needs. They do have to pay for medications and provider visits/treatment, but it isn’t much. These are charged to that inmate’s account, which is allowed to have a predetermined amount of money kept in it. They do have opportunities to work in the prison.
    I have not worked in other corrections facilities, but I can assume they are similar, as many of my coworkers have worked in them for many years. I understand federal and private institutions will have different policies as to care provided and how it is paid for. However, as miserable as it would be to suffer migraine under those conditions, I believe they have access to the treatment they need.

  • Elizabeth Roberts-Zibbel moderator
    5 years ago

    I have often had this thought as well Kerrie; more so about a sudden psychiatric hospitalization, say, where you don’t have to commit any crimes to land there. It would take days for new doctors, nurses and caregivers to get a handle on the severity of my / our situation which would lead to days of terror in an unfamiliar place. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, no one deserves that.

  • kathykathy
    5 years ago

    I don’t think there would be too many at the extreme end as they would be too sick to do that kind of crime. I believe prisoners in the us have more medical access than uninsured citizens so they may even get better access. There would be no scans or stuff but they would have access to all the pysch drugs which can prevent some. They may get a triptian, if the system will pay for them they cost much more than my fee of $2 a tablet, and if the nurse is willing to administer it and if they can get the request to see her authorised. I think you’ll find the penal system has limited sympathy and would see the conditions as an disincentive to committ crime. The people I feel more sympathy for are those outside who have done nothing wrong and are poor and cannot buy the drugs. As well as trying to keep working to feed and house themselves.

  • Yuze
    5 years ago


    I have thought exactly the same thing. I imagine being trapped in that environment and not having immediate access to nasal Samaritan. I can’t imagine that prisoners are allowed to keep a dose on their person or in their cell. Hope I’m wrong. And I imagine fellow prisoners harassing the suffering migraine who just wants to curl up in a ball in the dark and quiet. Gosh…

    One of my worse migraine experiences occurred when I was already an inpatient in a Japanese hospital. I was very sick with migraine, unable to see well, nauseous, sensitive to the brilliant florescent lights overhead, and raucous noise all around, unable to get the nurses to understand the migraine medicine I needed. Finally was able to persuade them to give me some valium and had to suffer the noise, posture (I tend to kneel on the floor with my head up on the bed until the worst of the vomiting and headache is over) with a pillow over my head. That was bed. Prison…. gee….

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    5 years ago

    Good point about prisoners probably not being able to keep medication with them. Unfortunately, I think you’re likely right.

    Your migraine while hospitalized sounds like a horrendous experience!

  • Yuze
    5 years ago

    That last line was suppose to read: That was ‘bad’

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