Federal Judge: Prison Hepatitis C Lawsuit Will Advance

By Kelan Lyons, The CT Mirror

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A federal judge has allowed a handful of inmates to pursue a class-action lawsuit that could force Connecticut’s prisons to screen and treat thousands of inmates for the Hepatitis C virus — a measure that could save lives and cost the state millions of dollars.

The suit alleges that the Department of Correction does not adequately care for its prisoners infected with the disease, putting in jeopardy the health of those entrusted to the agency’s care.

On Tuesday U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. Shea ruled that inmates Robert Barfield, John Knapp, Jason Barberi and Darnell Tatem could sue the Department of Corrections on behalf of all current and future inmates diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C. The suit complains that over a six-year period, the prisons treated only 152 inmates for the disease when there were likely as many as 2,000 infected.

In a separate ruling, Shea denied a motion that would have dismissed the class-action lawsuit.

The plaintiffs, represented by attorneys Kenneth Krayeske and DeVaughn Ward, claim the DOC does not adequately treat or screen inmates for the virus, which is especially prevalent in jails and prisons and can be spread via blood, sex and needles used to inject drugs or create body art like piercings and tattoos.

It is unclear how many inmates in Connecticut prisons have Hepatitis C, Shea’s ruling states, but a study found that up to 12% of the New Haven Correctional Center’s inmates had the virus in 2015.

A bill considered by legislators this year would have required the DOC to study the prevalence of Hepatitis C in correctional institutions and facilities. The blood tests for the study would have cost $412,765, according to the state’s fiscal analysis  that also notes treatment could cost the state between $43 and $158 million. The bill did not make it to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk.

Krayeske and Ward filed a motion for preliminary relief last month, noting that “from March 16, 2012 to October 26, 2018, the CDOC only treated 152 inmates with [direct-acting antiviral medication,]” despite that more than 2,000 inmates were likely suffering from the virus during that six-year period. Their motion calls on the state prison system to start screening for and treating inmates who have contracted Hepatitis C before the lawsuit is resolved.

Connecticut is not alone in being accused of failing to treat inmates who have Hepatitis C. North Carolina, MassachusettsColorado, Pennsylvania and Missouri are among the roughly dozen states facing lawsuits for not screening, treating or documenting Hepatitis C rates among their inmates. A ruling in Florida is requiring that state’s Department of Corrections to treat its Hepatitis C-infected inmates.

Ward suggested the state now faces a decision on whether to continue fighting the lawsuit or to come to the negotiating table. The DOC could create a tiered plan for how to treat inmates afflicted with the virus, Ward said, and administer medications to individuals at later stages of the illness.

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Olivia McDowellComment