At Hearing on Health Conditions for HIV+ Prisoners, ACLU Says Officials Failed to Prevent Staph Infection Outbreak

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
June 28, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU of Mississippi
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OXFORD, MS- At a federal court hearing today on health conditions for Mississippi prisoners with HIV, the American Civil Liberties Union presented evidence that prison officials failed to prevent a drug-resistant staphylococcus outbreak within the men’s unit for HIV-positive prisoners.

“”At least two men have required hospitalization because of the uncontained outbreak in the segregated housing unit for HIV/AIDS patients,”” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “”To protect the lives of prisoners in Unit 28, officials must provide enough soap, bleach and functioning laundry machines to sanitize the unit and stop the infection from spreading.””

At today’s evidentiary hearing, the ACLU countered the state’s efforts to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of all HIV-positive prisoners in Mississippi by presenting testimony that unconstitutional conditions in the prison unit still persist.

Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a highly transmissible bacterial infection found within institutions such as prisons because of overcrowded living quarters, inadequate sanitation by staff and prisoners, and insufficient laundry practices, Winter explained. Individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV, are particularly susceptible to MRSA and its life-threatening complications.

Visits conducted in April by Dr. Robert B. Greifinger, the former Chief Medical Officer for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, found numerous cases of prisoners in Unit 28 suffering from the damaging impact of MRSA. Indeed, Dr. Greifinger discovered one prisoner displaying clear signs of the infection who was never diagnosed by medical staff.

“”I found the inmate with dozens and dozens of weeping skin lesions all over his torso and limbs, most likely caused by MRSA,”” Dr. Greifinger said in a post-tour report. “”This infection was known to the health care staff, yet they did not culture his lesions and did not treat him. The inmate is now at risk of permanent disfiguration and serious systemic infection that could be life-threatening.”” According to his report, Unit 28 has been averaging seven new cases of MRSA per month.

In March, an environmental health and safety expert, James J. Balsamo, toured Unit 28 of the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman to observe the living conditions for the approximately 190 HIV-positive men housed there. “”Defects in the laundry operations at Parchman, and the failure to provide adequate soap, bleach, floor cleaning supplies and sanitizing agents are major sanitation issues that are contributing to the infection problems and the spread of MRSA in this HIV unit, and creating a very real and serious threat to the life, health, and safety of these HIV-positive inmates,”” concluded Balsamo after his tour.

Greifinger, Balsamo and several prisoners from Parchman’s Unit 28 will testify before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis today and tomorrow regarding the staph outbreak and other medical problems.

Earlier this month, Judge Davis ruled in favor of prisoners in Mississippi by ending a 14-year-old rule that excluded all HIV-positive men and women from entering Community Work Centers. The centers aid in rehabilitation and speeded a prisoner’s return home.

Winter and Jessica Feierman of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, along with Jackson attorney Elizabeth Jane Hicks, represent the prisoners in the class-action lawsuit Gates v. Collier, consolidated with Moore v. Fordice.

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