VACAVILLE, Calif. — The most dangerous thing coming out of prison these days may be something most convicts don’t even know they have: hepatitis C.
Nobody knows how many inmates have the disease; by some estimates, around 40 percent of the 2.2 million in jail and prison are infected, compared with just 2 percent of the general population.
Eventually, when they are released, medical experts predict they will be a crushing burden on the health care system, perhaps killing as many people as AIDS in years to come. At the same time, they will be carriers, spreading the disease.
Hepatitis C can be treated, but many prisons do not test for it. Among the reasons: Budgets are tight, and treatment is expensive. So prison officials close their eyes to the gathering emergency and pass it along to the outside world.
“Right now there’s a golden opportunity to bring solutions to this problem before it hits,” said Dr. John Ward, director of viral hepatitis at the National Center for HIV/AIDS at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Hepatitis C is already the most common disease of its sort in the United States — a chronic, life-threatening, blood-borne infection. It is most commonly linked to infected needles used for drugs, though prison tattoos and body piercing with non-sterile equipment are also risky.
What makes this virus particularly insidious is that as many as half of the people who have hepatitis C don’t even know they have it. The “silent killer,” already considered epidemic by the World Health Organization, often remains dormant for decades.
Some of the infected are lucky: One in five people who get hepatitis C will clear it out of their system naturally. But without treatment, one in four will suffer liver failure or develop liver cancer. Last year liver cancer was the only one of the top 10 fatal cancers in this country to increase, in large part because of hepatitis C.
More than $1 billion is already spent each year on this country on hepatitis C, and those costs are expected to soar unless prevention and treatment are expanded.
Without those changes, researchers project that liver-related deaths will triple from around 13,000 in 2000 to 39,000 by 2030. It’s also estimated that 375,000 Americans with hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis by the year 2015.
Anita Taylor, 48, is already there, in end-stage liver disease. Taylor speaks very slowly and moves with care. She often finds that she can’t say the words she wants to — they just won’t come out. Her body hurts most of the time. Her nose bleeds a lot.
'Doctor gave me a death sentence'
A mother of two and former heroin addict, Taylor said she learned she had hepatitis C when she was jailed in Nevada in 1991 for being under the influence of drugs.
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“They tested me and told me I had hepatitis C. They didn’t tell me there was a treatment and a cure,” she said. “And I didn’t know to ask.”
Taylor’s experience is not unusual.
“The doctor gave me a death sentence, recalls Leslie Czirr, a 36-year-old parolee. “He told me, ’There’s no cure for this and you will die from it unless you are hit by a truck first,”’
Czirr learned she had hepatitis C during a prenatal examination in 1996, at a time when she wasn’t in prison. Czirr has been arrested 10 times for drug possession and served almost eight years in prison on various drug possession and dealing charges.
She has started to suffer exhaustion, brain fog and aches. She recently enrolled in a county program to be treated — treatment, she said, she was denied at California’s Norco State Prison.
“I asked and asked, but they barely want to give you a Motrin,” she said. “I really want to get well, not just for myself, but so I’m not putting anyone else at risk.”
Limited studies indicate that fewer than 10 percent of prisoners who have contracted hepatitis C are treated. The reason vary. Medical staff have other priorities, and not all are well-informed about the disease. Prisoners with short sentences are often excluded because they won’t be able to complete treatment, and drug addicts who are inclined to return to risky behavior are often turned away because it is assumed they will simply reinfect themselves.
No funding for treatment
Usually, though, it comes down to money. Prison officials say that even if they wanted to provide the treatment, it is extremely expensive — about $9,500 per patient per year — and no federal funds have been earmarked to pay for it.
“It’s a hard sell to convince taxpayers why additional resources should be spent on the health care of the incarcerated when there are a lot of people who aren’t incarcerated who don’t have adequate health care,” said Dr. Joseph Bick, chief medical officer at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville.
Many of the inmates in Vacaville’s hospice unit — reserved for those given six months or less to live — are dying from hepatitis C-related ailments. Bick said half of the prison’s 3,200 inmates have a history of having been infected with hepatitis C, and at any given time about 40 of those men are receiving the intensive drug treatment to cure it.
“I’m pretty sure this is how I got it,” said Anthony Harris, an inmate at Vacaville. He rubbed his forearm hard, as if trying to remove the prison tattoo bearing his children’s names.
Harris, 51, is a former barber serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. In 2003, a doctor at another prison told him he had Hepatitis C; he researched the disease in the prison library and has sought treatment ever since.
“They gave me shots for Hep A and B, got rid of them. I’d like to get rid of the C too,” he said. “I’m entitled to that. But some docs will give you the treatment and others won’t. I keep making appointments. I keep asking.”
But Bick said the high cost of treating prisoners for hepatitis C is a bargain compared to the bill that would come due if these cases are left untreated. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to have an impact on the larger health of the community,” he said.
Dr. Lynn Taylor, an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University’s medical school, agrees that prison is “perhaps one of the best setting for treatment of high-risk individuals.”
'Window of opportunity' for public-health efforts
“Prison can be a window of opportunity to reduce the reservoir of infection,” she said.
But there are no federal rules about testing and treating hepatitis C. Federal guidelines, issued by the CDC in 2003, said correctional facilities should “become part of prevention and control efforts in the broader community.” But they don’t recommend screening for all inmates.
Instead, the CDC urged medical staff to ask new inmates about their risk factors, and only those prisoners who seem likely to be exposed should undergo screening, which costs $5 to $10.
The CDC guidelines fell short, said Dr. Josiah Rich, a professor at Brown who directs the university’s Center for Prisoner and Human Rights. Rich’s studies confirm that convicted criminals are almost always willing to be tested for hepatitis C, but will often lie to prison authorities about their past drug use.
“We already know that more than one in three people coming through corrections has Hep C, so by definition everyone coming in is high risk. It’s absurd that they’re not testing everyone,” he said.
Rich concedes that testing every inmate will “jack up costs” for prisons.
“An individual is going to say, ’Hey, you tested me, you said I was positive, and now I want to be treated, and I’m going to sue you if I don’t get treated,”’ he said.
Lawsuits on the rise
Lawsuits are, indeed, on the rise.
The first significant case came in 1999, when officials at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Ky., refused to allow inmate Michael Paulley access to free hepatitis C treatment. Paulley, who was serving a 25-year sentence for rape and burglary, sued and won.
But the treatment came late and he died in 2004, the year he would have been eligible for parole. The litigation prompted broader testing and treatment in Kentucky, but Paulley’s physician, Dr. Bennet Cecil, a Louisville, Ky.-based hepatitis C specialist, said prisoners still die “all the time” for untreated hepatitis C.
“I think it’s immoral if a country, a state a society is going to incarcerate somebody and then deny them necessary medical care. I think that’s an outrage,” he said.
Prisons in at least a dozen states — Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma and Virginia — are being sued over failure to treat hepatitis C.
But it’s tough going, said Oregon civil rights attorney Michelle Burroughs. Although she’s won a settlement that mandated testing for at risk inmates and treatment for those who are eligible, five of the 10 inmates she’s representing in a class-action lawsuit have died while the litigation proceeds.
“It’s appalling, horrendous, horrifying. Prisoners wait five years just to be evaluated,” she said.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., recently reintroduced legislation that would mandate prison testing and treatment of hepatitis C. Earlier similar proposals in recent years have failed.
“The plain fact is that prisoners do not stay in prison. With more than 90 percent of incarcerated persons returning to their communities, it is clear that when a prisoner is infected, we are all affected,” Lee said.
In North Dakota, it didn’t take legislation, court orders or new regulations to prompt medical services director Kathleen Bachmeier to begin screening every inmate for hepatitis C after a methamphetamine epidemic tripled her state’s prison population in about a decade. As the intravenous drug addicts arrived, so did the hepatitis C.
“It became obvious to me that these people are going to cost the state a lot of money if we don’t do something about it,” she said.
North Dakota now treats anyone who meets certain medical criteria, whose sentence is long enough to complete the course of treatment and who is willing to try to quit using drugs.
“We look at this as a huge public health initiative,” she said.
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