In a lawsuit that may impact thousands of Michigan citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is charging that Michigan prison officials and the Department of Corrections are allowing an infectious disease to reach epidemic proportions by failing to adequately test and treat inmates with the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV). The class action lawsuit was filed today in federal district court.

HCV is a blood-borne virus that causes liver disease and other life-threatening problems. It is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person by, for example, sharing of intravenous or tattoo needles or the sharing of bodily fluids, including during sex. It may also be spread through the sharing razors and toothbrushes.  

“This is a very serious problem for everyone in Michigan. Unless the prisons begin to follow appropriate protocols for testing and treating Hepatitis C among inmates, HCV will continue to spread well beyond the prison walls,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU.  “And unless it is treated in the early stages of the disease, the cost of treating the disease will undoubtedly rise dramatically.”  

The surgeon general has declared the disease to be a national epidemic. It now causes between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths each year in the U.S., a death rate that is expected to triple in the next two decades.  The nation’s prisons are a focal point for Hepatitis C infection and transmission, with an estimated 15 to 40% infection rate, as compared to a rate of 2% for those outside prison.  

At the end of 2002, Michigan’s inmate population exceeded 49,000. National and other state estimates suggest that 7,350 –19,600 of these inmates (fifteen to forty percent) may be infected with HCV, and many more are likely to have elevated risk factors for HCV infection that indicate HCV testing would be appropriate.  

The ACLU lawsuit asserts that not only does the Michigan Department of Corrections’ protocol for testing and treating inmates for HCV “fall[s] far short of nationally accepted medical standards,” MDOC also fails to follow its own inadequate standards.  According to the complaint, some inmates are not even notified that the have Hepatitis C or educated about how to prevent the transmission of the disease.  

“Not only does the MDOC’s approach to HCV constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but it is also extremely short-sighted,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan ACLU. “Inmates with Hepatitis C will eventually be released from prison. If they are not diagnosed or told that they are infected, they will unknowingly spread this deadly disease throughout society.”  

In addition to Moss and Steinberg, ACLU Cooperating Attorney Daniel Manville will be working on the case, as well as student attorneys from the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program supervised by Professor David Santacroce.