On TN prison problems with hepatitis C

As initially reported by the Tennessean in the first of a series of articles, Only eight of the 3,487 inmates known to have hepatitis C in Tennessee prisons are receiving medicine that can cure the disease, caused by a virus that can lead to fatal liver damage. Nearly one in two inmates the state did test in 2015 showed signs of having hepatitis C.

On Monday, Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, whose district includes one of the state’s biggest prisons in Morgan County, held a news conference to declare the situation poses a danger to the public at large. Excerpt from WPLN’s report:

“Ninety percent of all inmates are released back into the general population,” he says. “And if you’ve got 10,000 people that have got hepatitis C that are going to re-enter the population, the chance for the spread of that disease is phenomenal. And we need to take steps to try to address that immediately.”

But Windle says that 10,000 figure is conjecture, because prison officials don’t know for sure exactly how many inmates are carrying hepatitis C. It’s based on a screening of 900 inmates, roughly half of whom came up positive for hepatitis C.

Prison officials do know that more than 3,000 have the disease, which is spread through dirty needles, tattoos and bodily fluids.

Windle would like the state to give every inmate blood tests for hepatitis C — or at least develop a protocol for figuring out those most at risk for the disease. For the good of the public as much as the good of prisoners.

“If the correctional officers and the counselors are subject to being in the same personal space as those inmates … it’s not uncommon to be subjected to bodily fluids, urine, feces tossed on them,” he says. “At the very minimum, we should provide a safe workplace.”

Wider testing would be expensive, Windle admits. And treatment for hepatitis C could cost more than $80,000 per patient. Prison officials have cited that price — as well as the high likelihood that inmates will contract the disease again after they’re cured — as major barriers to eradicating the disease.

But, says Windle, the cost to the state if the disease spreads beyond the prison walls would be far greater.

“I just think it’s time to address (what) may be an epidemic,” he says.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Correction responds that Tennessee prisons already have safety protocols in place to protect employees from exposure to hepatitis C.

She adds that testing positive for hepatitis C does not necessarily mean an inmate is carrying the virus because antibodies remain in the bloodstream even after they’ve recovered. She says doctors weigh factors such as virus type, the patient’s liver condition and other health conditions before determining treatment.