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Inmates with hepatitis C sue Tennessee prison officials for treatment

See Costs: High cost of new HCV drugs strains prison budgets
July 2016 Tennessee:

Tennessee inmates infected with hepatitis C filed a federal lawsuit against state prison officials late Monday, asking the court to force the state to start treating all inmates who have the potentially deadly disease.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocates in U.S. District Court in Nashville, says the Tennessee Department of Correction officials knowingly denying inmates care for their hepatitis C, also known as HCV, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. It alleges the department is denying care because the best available medication is too expensive.

"In reality, (department officials) ignore the medical needs of (inmates) and class members in order to save costs. (The department's) written policies for HCV diagnosis, assessment and treatment utilize outdated standards of care and normalize the practice of refusing treatment for unjust and medically unsound reasons," the lawsuit states.

Inmates Charles Graham, also known as Charles Stevenson, and Russell L. Davis are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Attorneys representing the inmates include Thomas Castelli, the ACLU-TN legal director; Karla Campbell of Nashville-based law firm Branstetter, Stranch and Jennings; and Elizabeth Logsdon of advocacy organization Disability Rights Tennessee. No Exceptions Prison Collective, an inmate advocacy organization, also helped compile the lawsuit.

"Incarcerating people under conditions that erode their health, safety and human dignity amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which not only has devastating long-term effects for those individuals, but which undermines the purported purpose of a rehabilitative criminal justice system," Castelli said in a news release.

They are seeking what's known as class-action status for the case: If successful, that would mean every inmate infected with hepatitis C also could be eligible to receive treatment in the future. The lawsuit names as defendants new department Commissioner Tony Parker, department Assistant Commissioner of Rehabilitative Services Dr. Marina Cadreche and department Medical Director Dr. Kenneth Williams.

In a statement, department spokeswoman Neysa Taylor defended the state's medical practices.

"The Tennessee Department of Correction is currently unaware of the referenced court filing but is confident the department is providing adequate medical care as determined by medical protocol," Taylor said in an email late Monday.

In the past, the department also has argued that it is adequately treating all inmates. But a Tennessean investigation earlier this year found that, as of March, nearly 3,500 inmates had hepatitis C while only eight were receiving treatment that could cure them. As of the end of June, the enormous disparity between those infected and those receiving treatment remains: There are 2,935 inmates with hepatitis C, while four are receiving the newest treatment, Taylor said. An additional inmate refused treatment, and three have completed the newest treatment, Taylor said.

Although infected inmates routinely leave and enter the Tennessee prison system, the change in number of inmates infected probably shows that at least several hundred inmates who remain infected have returned to their communities in the past few months. The department also doesn't test every inmate who enters the prison system. But of the 901 inmates tested in 2015, 424 tested positive for hepatitis C, Taylor previously told The Tennessean.

Advocates — including Jeannie Alexander, head of No Exceptions — say that means there are probably hundreds of other inmates with the disease who are not diagnosed.

"It is immoral and a violation of human rights and constitutional rights to knowingly refuse treatment to prisoners suffering from Hepatitis C when an effective treatment that has become the new standard of care is available," Alexander said in an emailed statement. ..Continued.. by Dave Boucher,

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