South Carolina's prisons agency is subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment by not testing them for a potentially fatal liver disease, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by one of the state's inmates.
The federal lawsuit filed by attorneys for Russell Geissler accuses the South Carolina Department of Corrections of violating inmates' rights and being "deliberately indifferent" to their medical needs by not testing all of them for hepatitis C.
According to the Corrections Department, about 600 of its 19,000 inmates currently have hepatitis C, which can lead to inflammation, weakness, pain, liver cancer and bleeding. But in his lawsuit, Geissler's attorneys argue that the figure is likely closer to 6,000, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about a third of all inmates are infected.
Corrections officials didn't immediately comment on the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status and asks a judge to require South Carolina prisons to test and treat inmates for hepatitis C.
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Treatment for the disease is highly effective, with a cure rate of 95 percent, according to Geissler's lawyers. But it is pricey, ranging from $25,000 to $90,000 for 12 weeks. Treating 6,000 inmates would cost about $150 million.
Failing to test all inmates, or even just those considered in a high-risk group — born between 1946 and 1965 — South Carolina's prisons agency also "uses an arbitrary method" to determine whether an inmate qualifies for treatment "that is not tied to the standard of care," according to the lawsuit.
Geissler, of Greenville, is serving a 10-year sentence for crimes including kidnapping, armed robbery and assault and battery. According to the lawsuit, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C in January 2014 after prison medical staff noticed unusual readings in lab work drawn for an unrelated reason.
Geissler started asking for treatment in May 2014, but as of Tuesday, he had not received any, according to the lawsuit. "Instead, they consistently inform him that he is not eligible for treatment at this time because he is not sick enough."
According to Christopher Bryant, Geissler's attorney, inmates in California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia have filed similar suits. In Florida, a federal judge issued an order requiring prisons officials to start testing and treatment immediately.
The Massachusetts Department of Corrections recently reached an agreement to test and treat inmates with hepatitis C.