Prison Officials' Failure to Contain Hepatitis C Brings Epidemic Outside Prison Walls, MI ACLU Charges

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
January 21, 2003 12:00 am

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DETROIT - In a class-action lawsuit that may impact thousands, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today charged state prison officials with allowing an infectious disease to reach epidemic proportions by failing to adequately test and treat inmates with the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV). The class action lawsuit was filed today in federal district court.

"This is a very serious problem for everyone in Michigan," said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan. "Unless the prisons begin to follow appropriate protocols for testing and treating Hepatitis C among inmates, HCV will continue to spread well beyond the prison walls. And unless the disease is treated in the early stages, the cost of treatment will undoubtedly rise dramatically."

HCV is a blood-borne virus that causes liver disease and other life-threatening problems. It is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person by, for example, sharing of intravenous or tattoo needles or the sharing of bodily fluids, including during sex. It may also be spread through the sharing razors and toothbrushes.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, not only does the Michigan Department of Corrections' protocol for testing and treating inmates for HCV "fall far short of nationally accepted medical standards," corrections officials also fail to follow their own inadequate standards. Some inmates are not even notified that they have Hepatitis C or educated about how to prevent the transmission of the disease, the ACLU charged.

"Not only does the Department of Corrections' approach to HCV constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but it is also extremely short-sighted," said Michael J. Steinberg, Legal Director of the Michigan ACLU. "Inmates with Hepatitis C will eventually be released from prison. If they are not diagnosed or told that they are infected, they will unknowingly spread this deadly disease throughout society."

The Surgeon General has declared the disease to be a national epidemic. It now causes between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths each year in the U.S., a death rate that is expected to triple in the next two decades. The nation's prisons are a focal point for Hepatitis C infection and transmission, the ACLU said in legal papers, with an estimated 15 to 40 percent infection rate, compared to an infection rate of two percent for those outside prison.

At the end of 2002, Michigan's inmate population exceeded 49,000. National and other state estimates suggest that between 7,350 -19,600 of these inmates (15 to 40 percent) may be infected with HCV, and many more are likely to have elevated risk factors for HCV infection that indicate HCV testing would be appropriate.

In addition to Moss and Steinberg, ACLU Cooperating Attorney Daniel Manville will be working on the case, as well as student attorneys from the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program supervised by Professor David Santacroce.

The ACLU complaint is online at http://www.aclumich.org/issues/HepCComplaint.pdf

A protocol on the recommended treatment, education and monitoring of HCV is online at http://www.aclumich.org/press%20releases/hepc.htm

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