Death Row Prisoners With Hepatitis C
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
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
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
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 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
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