Pennsylvania: Prisoner Unlocks Hepatitis C Epidemic

In 1992 at a state prison infirmary in Pittsburgh, inmate Rob Lassen learned he did not have HIV. But it took four years before Lassen, who was convicted of assault, was told he had tested positive for hepatitis C. The physician who revealed the diagnosis held out little hope for treatment and no explanation of why prison health officials had not told Lassen sooner.

Angry at having his medical results withheld from him and fearful that he would die if he were not treated, Lassen spearheaded a prison-yard investigation of hepatitis C at Rockview prison. How many other inmates knew they had hepatitis C? What was hidden in their files? What had they been told? Could they get treatment?

When Lassen asked for interferon in 1998, prison officials turned him down: They had no policy for treating hepatitis C. When the Food and Drug Administration approved dual drug therapy in June 1998, Lassen began referring other inmates to the infirmary to get blood tests and recorded whether each had been treated -- in signed affidavits. Eleven untreated inmates filed grievances with Rockview's medical administrator, promptly landing Lassen in 30 days' solitary confinement for "unauthorized group activity," an infraction making him ineligible for early prison release.

Yet, at the same time, prisoners in eastern Pennsylvania were starting to get treatment. There, Correctional Physician Services Inc. began to use dual hepatitis C therapy on prisoners in 1999. Early in 2000, the Department of Corrections began screening inmates at high risk because of drug abuse, and prisons began offering dual therapy to eligible prisoners. Inmates are also educated about the disease and how it is spread through shared drug paraphernalia, so that the thousands who pass through prisons each year might be less likely to infect others when they get out.

Yet, the improvements came too late for Lassen. After his October 2000 release, he was accepted into a dual-drug interferon clinical trial. It failed, however, to reduce the hepatitis C in his system. As a free man, Lassen appealed the punishment for his hepatitis C activism while incarcerated. In a July 3 hearing before Magistrate Judge J. Andrew Smyser, Lassen accepted the DOC's offer for a settlement of $6,501.

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