A lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court by a South Carolina inmate alleges that the state may be failing to provide proper treatment and medication for more than 5,000 inmates potentially living with Hepatitis C.
The class-action suit was filed by Russell Geissler, 34, an inmate at Perry Correctional Institution in Anderson County. Geissler discovered he had Hepatitis C, a viral infection that can lead to chronic liver disease, after regular blood drawings related to a different medication he was taking cued a prison doctor to test him, according to Geissler’s court-appointed attorney Chris Bryant.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one third of U.S. prisoners have Hepatitis C.
The S.C. Department of Corrections has a population of more than 19,000 inmates, meaning that more than 6,000 people would require treatment and care under the CDC’s estimates. SCDC has identified 624 inmates as living with the illness, according to Bryant, something he calls “luck of the draw” considering they do not provide mandatory or opt-out testing for incoming inmates.
Geissler first filed the lawsuit by himself last summer, but was appointed an attorney by a judge after similar cases picked up steam in other states.
“The lawsuit seeks really two things: One is opt-out testing, testing for all inmates,” Bryant said. “And the second is treatment that is in line with the standard of care. The standard of care is, with very few exceptions, everyone who has Hepatitis C should be treated because there is a cure.”
Though the drug is costly, Geissler’s suit seeks to treat individuals depending on their level of infection. Hepatitis C progresses in stages.
“I realized this was his best chance of getting treatment,” Bryant said of his client. “But also, prisoners aren’t entitled to whatever medical care they want, or to cutting edge drugs, but when things become the standard of care, then that’s what prisoners are entitled to. That’s just a Constitutional, eighth amendment issue.”
Eleven states have pending class action lawsuits on the same issue, including California and Florida.
In Massachusetts, the state’s corrections department reached a settlement with the National Lawyers Guild and Prisoners’ Legal Services to treat prisoners with the most serious cases of Hepatitis C within 18 months, according to The Wall Street Journal. Additionally, every new prisoner will be tested for the disease in that state.
The newspaper conducted a study in 2016 that found that only 3.4 percent of inmates with Hepatitis C in 34 states had been treated with new drugs that have high cure rates.
Geissler is a little over eight years into a 10 year sentence for charges including armed robbery and kidnapping. Bryant says it is unclear how Geissler contracted Hepatitis C, which is commonly spread through blood. He underwent blood transfusions as a child and previously admitted to using intravenous drugs at one point.
The department’s budget for fiscal year 2018-2019 proposes the establishment of a Hepatitis C treatment clinic, though that program would only treat about 16 according to the lawsuit as opposed to the thousands who likely need care.
The S.C. Department of Corrections did not reply to a request for comment.
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