By John Monk, The State
COLUMBIA — A lawsuit that could require the S.C. Department of Corrections to spend tens of millions of dollars to treat possibly thousands of prison inmates with Hepatitis C, a potentially fatal liver disease, was filed Tuesday in federal court.
The lawsuit was filed by inmate Russell Geissler, 34, of Greenville, who is serving a roughly 10-year sentence for charges including armed robbery. It claims that up to 6,000 of the state’s inmates may have Hepatitis C, a liver infection especially prevalent among prison inmates..
The lawsuit alleges a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment. It seeks class-action status and asks a federal judge to order immediate testing of the prison system’s approximately 19,000 inmates. S.C. prisons do not now systematically test inmates for Hepatitis C, the lawsuit says.
A similar federal suit was brought against the Florida prison system. In that case, a federal judge last fall ordered that state’s prison system to diagnose and treat the most infected inmates.
The judge in that case found that Florida had “a long and sordid history of failing to treat Hepatitis C-infected inmates.” Not treating them amounted to a violation of the Eighth Amendment, showing “deliberate indifference” to inmates’ serious medical needs.
Last week, the state of Massachusetts tentatively settled another similar federal lawsuit, agreeing to begin testing and treating its prison inmates. Similar class-action lawsuits are pending in a dozen other states.
Prison inmates have a constitutional right to appropriate and timely medical treatment. Inmates have no other access to medical care other than what the state allows or provides.
There is effective treatment for Hepatitis C. New drugs to treat it began to come on the market in 2013, and treatment nearly always is successful, according to medical authorities. If the infection is untreated, it can lead to liver cancer, liver failure or other severe ailments.
The biggest barrier to treatment is cost of the anti-viral treatment drugs — which can cost from $25,000 to $50,000 for each prisoner. However, Hepatitis C progresses in stages, and not everyone who has the infection needs to be treated at once.
Hepatitis C is spread by exposure to blood or blood products. The most common ways to contract the disease are through intravenous drug use, but people also can be affected through tattooing or blood transfusions. Persons affected with Hepatitis C can suffer weakness, pain, liver cancer and bleeding from any part in the body.
Prison officials were not immediately available to comment on the suit. However, the S.C. Department of Corrections is aware of the dangers of Hepatitis C.
“We have begun to treat Hepatitis C inmates with a new drug regimen that has over a 95 per cent cure rate,” prisons director Bryan Stirling wrote in his department’s annual report last fall.
Last fiscal year, the department treated four inmates with the new drugs, Stirling said.
But that isn’t anywhere near what is needed, the lawsuit says.
The S.C. prison system’s program “will serve only 16 inmates, despite the fact that the number of infected inmates likely numbers in the thousands,” the lawsuit said.
The prison system now has a partnership with the S.C. Department of Environmental Control and the University of South Carolina Infectious Disease Program, Stirling wrote. Two doctors are on contract to work with various infectious diseases, including Hepatitis C, he wrote.
Geissler, an inmate since 2011, was diagnosed as having Hepatitis C in January 2014 after having his blood tested for an unrelated health issue. The prison system repeatedly has denied his requests for treatment, and he has exhausted “all available administrative remedies,” his lawsuit says.
Christopher Bryant, the Charleston lawyer who brought the lawsuit on Geissler’s behalf, said Tuesday the prison system’s position is that Geissler and other inmates with Hepatitis C are “not yet sick enough for treatment. This is contrary to accepted medical standard of care and unacceptable in a civilized society.”
Inmates with untreated Hepatitis C are being released when they finish their sentences, Bryant said. Outside prison, they may spread the disease. If they are tested, treated and taught about prevention inside prison, that benefits the public as a whole, Bryant said.
“Treat and educate in the prisons,” Bryant said. “It will help to slow the spread outside prisons.”
Bryant acknowledged some people may not be sympathetic to giving expensive treatment to inmates.
But inmates deserve medical treatment, he said. “If someone breaks their arm in prison, we don’t say, ‘Hey, don’t get a cast’.”
Also, he said, Geissler is not asking for an unproven experimental drug. The drugs in use to treat Hepatitis C have a nearly 100 percent cure rate, he said.
Bryant is working with lawyers in the Harpootlian law firm of Columbia, which has experience in class-action litigation, and the Guttman Buschner law firm in Washington, D.C., experienced in medical and class-action issues, in the lawsuit.