Lawsuit Challenges Tennessee Department of Corrections Hepatitis C Protocol

Organizations Charge Lack of Treatment is Cruel and Unusual

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
July 26, 2016 10:30 am

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Disability Rights Tennessee and Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC today filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ systematic denial of treatment to inmates infected with Hepatitis C (HCV). No Exceptions Prison Collective also collaborated in the filing of the lawsuit.

“Tennessee’s prisons must operate in compliance with the Constitution,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU-TN legal director. “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.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an inmate at the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville and an inmate at the Hardeman County Correctional Facility in Whiteville, who were both diagnosed with HCV years ago while incarcerated at Tennessee Department of Corrections facilities. The complaint alleges that the Department of Corrections consistently and systematically denied the plaintiffs treatment for their disease in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

In March 2016, the Tennessee Department of Corrections placed the number of its inmates testing positive for HCV at 3,487, or nearly one in six prisoners, while conceding that this number is likely far below true infection rates due to a lack of routine testing and inaccurate testing. The department further acknowledged that nearly half of the inmates tested for Hepatitis C in 2015 were positive, which puts the likely number of infected inmates closer to 10,000.

The current guidance for treatment of HCV infection, jointly set by the American Association for the Study of Liver Disease and the Infectious Disease Society of America, definitively establishes a 12-week treatment regimen with direct-acting anti-viral drugs as the medically accepted standard of care. This treatment results in curing the disease in at least 90 percent of cases. In its written protocol on managing chronic HCV, the Tennessee Department of Corrections acknowledges this treatment guidance and the recommendation that all individuals testing positive for HCV receive such treatment. However, as of May 2016, only eight of the 3,487 inmates identified as infected were receiving treatment with direct-acting anti-viral drugs.

The lawsuit alleges that the Department of Corrections has “intentionally omitted [direct-acting anti-viral] treatment from [its HCV] Protocol and other policies in order to justify their routine denial of treatment with these life-saving medications.” This deliberate indifference, the lawsuit contends, has led to inmates’ acute physical suffering and, if continued, will lead to irreversible physical harm, including eventual death.

“To knowingly deny people an extremely effective medical treatment when one is readily available is inhumane and morally wrong,” said Jeannie Alexander, director of the No Exceptions Prison Collective, which collaborated to bring the lawsuit.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the Tennessee Department of Corrections’ policies and practices with regards to HCV violate the Eighth Amendment and to require the department to develop and implement a new plan for diagnosis and treatment that complies with the community standard of care and expert medical advice.

“The Tennessee Department of Corrections’ failure to treat inmates with HCV does not occur in a vacuum. The vast majority of Tennesseans in state custody will eventually be released, making both treatment and a failure to treat a public health issue,” said Disability Rights Tennessee attorney Liz Logsdon. “Treating inmates with HCV is good for all Tennesseans.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

In addition to Castelli and Logsdon, the plaintiffs are represented by ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Karla Campbell of Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC.

A copy of the complaint can be found here.

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