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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Death Row Prisoners With Hepatitis C Tortured
by the California Department of Corrections (CDC)

by Richard B. Stewart

CDC is well aware of the hepatitis C epidemic in the system.

Russ Heimrich, corrections spokesperson, has been quoted as stating "more than a third of the prison population, 34.6 percent now has the disease."

This is a problem that is being ignored due to the budgetary concerns.  A CDC ombudsman claims there are no figures on how large a percentage of prisoners is infected, (this statement made after Heimrich's) and that CDC plans to test 3,000 prisoners to get an estimate.  But treatment will be in the hands of the finance office. (Since when did accountants become licensed to practice medicine?) The bottom line is treatment can double the yearly cost for a prisoner's incarceration.

About two years ago, some of us death row prisoners in the San Quentin Adjustment Center filed and pushed for treatment. First we were met with claims that there was no treatment, that interferon/ribavarin "was experimental." However, since we had a copy, we knew that there were already CDC guidelines for treatment and exclusion criteria in place, and some in Pelican Bay had already received the treatment.  One doctor who had worked at Pelican Bay actually told me, "You are condemned and are going to die any way, we are not going to treat you."




Some of us did prevail.  The first to win treatment was only granted it when a federal suit was filed. Treatment was granted to make the suit moot and achieve dismissal.  But it opened the door a crack, long enough for a few of us to squeeze through before the realized cost slammed it shut.

This first individual was afforded an outside gastroenterologist, he was taken to an outside hospital and his biopsy was properly done to identify potential areas of lesions and check for anatomical irregularities. He was given both local and general anesthesia. Once the biopsy was completed, he was told to lie still on his back in the hospital bed, and he was observed for the proper amount of time.  He was given food and liquids and there were arrangements for him to relieve himself.

However, now San Quentin had seen the bill for the proper humane treatment of this one prisoner, in a certified hospital, and Sacramento was not pleased.

So for the rest of us, circumstances were drastically different. It was all about a serious reduction of cost which included elimination of: a gastroenterologist as the primary physician; hospital fees; ultrasonography; general anesthesia; and security and transportation costs.

Now this is the point in the story where CDC got a bit medieval on our asses.  In a twisted replication of Henry Ford's "Industrial Revolution-Assembly Line" cost-cutting tactics, they took six of us at a time in waist chains to San Quentin's Neumiller clinic (an uncertified facility).  They placed shackles on our legs and cuffs on our hands, leaving the waist chains on.  They pulled down the jumpsuits they had clothed us in, and laid us on six gurneys they had lined up in a small dank room.  They then (reminiscent of the medieval torture device called "the rack,") chained our leg shackles tight under one end of the gurney and stretched our arms over our heads and chained our cuffs tight under the other end of the gurney. This position was such that shoulder cramps began within minutes and there was very little play in the cuff chain so obtaining a more comfortable position was impossible.  (Of course, this was all "necessary for security.")  A doctor then marked our sides with a marker, injected local anesthetic and within two minutes quickly shoved a large gauge, about six inches long, biopsy needle between our ribs and pulled out a sample of liver.  We were then told to roll onto our side and they put a rolled up San Quentin shower towel under the biopsy wound.  We were told to lay in that position for four hours.

It was an exercise in mind control.  Since your shoulders had been seriously cramping after the third minute, you had to just accept and even embrace the cramps and wander places in your mind.

This process was repeated for three groups of prisoners.  A few were even less lucky and apparently had nerves hit during the biopsies. All of us had bursting bladders by the time we were let up and still had to be walked back a mile to the unit and processed back to our cells before we could relieve ourselves. However, one man had to go too badly during the time on the rack and he asked for a bottle to urinate in. One was finally brought, but this created a new problem. Since he was so chained, even if they held the bottle for him, how would he get his equipment out of his shorts? (Now with our gallows sense of humor, to us it gets a bit funny here.) This friend, faced with his conundrum and bursting bladder, tried to tell the guards one of them needed to extract it from his boxers and hold it for him. Of course, gloves or not, none of them were going for it!  So he ended up having to snap his hips like a flailing hula dancer to finally free the necessary tool.

Does any of this amount to deliberate indifference and 8th amendment violations? Or is this simply acceptable effective cost management and reduction? Maybe. . . it is just effective budgetary reduction. In a pending bill, CDC wants five million dollars for new protective vests for guards.  In the spirit of "good for the goose, good for the gander," and out of concerns for the budget. . . I'm sure it can be cut here also. The public can donate used National Geographics and CDC can purchase enough duct tape to make the necessary vests.  Is that unacceptable? Maybe so were the biopsies.




The cold part it, we were the lucky ones.  Even during the biopsies, Dr. Nancy Thompson told me that "Sacramento is angry about the costs." We did get treatment but weren't monitored properly as advised by the drug manufacturer and some had their red blood cell count get dangerously low and due to cost were denied the drug Procrit (Erythropoietin) to bring the blood count back up to where they had oxygen adequate enough to not be always completely winded. Now no one [on death row] is being given biopsies, no one is being treated and many have very high liver enzymes, indicative of ongoing liver damage.

Russ Heimrich states, "We're working hard to improve our health care delivery to inmates with the limited resources we have." Well, I guess no less of a distortion can be expected from a CDC spin doctor, but anyone in the system knows that the reality is, due to the true cost now being realized, of this largest manifestation of the Prison Industrial Complex, all measures are being taken to reduce the budget and it is always services to inmates that are cut.  The correctional officers union is too politically powerful.

If the pending federal class action filed by the Prison Law Office and two outside firms succeeds and CDC is forced to provide prisoners with decent medical care, the true cost of this prison boom, and  CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association) political action committee's control of politicians will begin to come into full view.  The budget surplus has been depleted by our power crisis. Add to this the fall of many artificially inflated dot-coms and our financial conditions are changing. The economy is changed and this may be the beginning of a recession.  Maybe now this politically motivated massive prison boom error will finally hit the public in the only place that seems to get their attention. . . not their hearts. . . but their wallets. We can only hope.

Richard B. Stewart, D-53546
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974