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Virginia inmates sue over failure to treat their contagious, Hepatitis C liver disease

Hep-C-JPEG-300x169Hepatitis C routinely kills people. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 71 million people are infected with Hep C. Hep C attacks your liver, and that’s why: “approximately 399 000 people die each year from hepatitis C, mostly from cirrhosis [of the liver] and Hepatocellular Carcinoma [liver cancer].”

The seriousness of the disease cannot be underestimated, for example, in 2007: “Hep C patients died at a median age of 57. That’s 20 years shorter than the average US lifespan.”

Based on those facts, and so many more facts which demonstrate the dire consequences of Hepatitis C when left untreated, there is little wonder why the attorneys at Nexus Derechos Humanos filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of incarcerated human beings who have Hep C while under the care and custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

The suit is against two public officials, Harold Clarke (the Director of the entire Virginia Department of Corrections), and Mark Amonette (the Chief Medical Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections).  Both Clarke and Amonette have overseen a policy that refuses Hep C treatment to inmates until those inmates reach their death bed–a stage where even if the disease were cured, permanent liver damage has already set in, according to the Complaint.

The social ills caused within and outside of Virginia prison walls, due to Amonette and Clarke’s policy, are numerous. Foremost, throughout the United States, of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in U.S. jails and prison, 33% have Hepatitis C, a percentage that is exponentially higher than the 1.3% prevalence of Hep C in the general population. Moving to Virginia, as a whole, according to a 2016 report titled Virginia Hepatitis C Epidemiologic Profile, in 2015, “Hepatitis C was the fourth most common reportable disease among Virginians … and the rate of reported cases is rising.” And more specific to Virginia prisons, Hep C negatively affects more than 15% of people incarcerated in Virginia prisons, and that figure does not include people incarcerated in Virginia jails.

By permitting people under their care and custody to suffer from the debilitating effects of this terrifying liver disease that’s highly contagious, Amonette and Clarke have helped spread Hep C amongst free Virginians, because once Hep C victims are released, they spread the disease amongst the general population. What’s most frightening about Amonette and Clarke’s decision to leave Hep C victims untreated for prolonged periods of time is that, now, there is a cure.

The cure has over a 95% success rate. That success rate is important and relevant to the fact that, according to the lawsuit (and briefs) filed in the class action, the U.S. Supreme Court requires prison officials to provide adequate medical care when those same officials know that a person, under their care and custody, is suffering from a life-threatening disease. See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104–05 (1976). In the Estelle case, the Supreme Court specifically said:

deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain,” proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner’s needs or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed. Regardless of how evidenced, deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury states a cause of action under § 1983.”

That quote essentially means that a prison official cannot know that an inmate suffers from a disease, for example Hep C, and know that a cure exist for Hep C, yet nevertheless choose not to treat the inmate’s Hep C. Unfortunately, Clarke and Amonette won’t stop the suffering; instead, to this day, they continue to leave inmates’ Hep C– untreated.

Notably, Clarke and Amonette’s reasoning for denying Hep C treatment is primarily based on costs. But, as the attorneys for Nexus Derechos Humanos have repeatedly reminded Clarke and Amonette: “while administrative convenience and cost may be, in appropriate circumstances, permissible factors for correctional systems to consider in making treatment decisions, the Constitution is violated when they are considered to the exclusion of reasonable medical judgment about inmate health” [emphasis in original]) (citing Johnson v. Doughty, 433 F.3d 1001, 1013 [7th Cir. 2006]); Allah v. Thomas, 679 F. App’x 216, 220 (3d Cir. 2017).

The bottom line is that with a cure, Amonette and Clarke have no humane (or lawful) reason to let people slip into death, as well as having no humane reason to release Hep C victims into the general public, increasing Hep C’s infection rate amongst Virginians.

Call the Nexus Derechos Humanos for a free consultation, today; we protect and promote the civil and human rights of all people, especially those people who form the most vulnerable populations of our society.