There are over 2 million people serving sentences in US jails and prisons. According to the CDC, 1 in 3 incarcerated persons has Hepatitis C. This viral infection is characterized by the swelling or inflammation of the liver. This causes serious health problems, as the liver is a crucial organ for digesting food, keeping the blood clean, and fighting off germs. While there are different types of Hepatitis, Hepatitis C is the most common in the United States, as well as in jails and prisons.
Many people do not even realize they are infected because Hepatitis C is known as a silent disease for its seemingly invisible symptoms. While some can be cured completely, many people develop chronic Hepatitis C that stays in their system for life. Treatments can also be expensive, especially within a prison budget. For this reason, understanding the prevalence of Hepatitis C in prisons is necessary for awareness, prevention, and change.
Ways Hepatitis C is Spread
Most often, Hepatitis C enters a person’s system through contact with the blood of someone already infected. Here are the three most common ways:
Blood Accidents: Accidents such as blood spills and blood splatters outside the body can spread Hepatitis C. Not only that, but the virus can survive outside the body for several days even when the blood has dried. Once the blood comes into contact with other objects – even amounts too small to be seen – that object becomes contaminated and can be spread to others.
Tattoos and Piercings: Very commonly, Hepatitis C is spread when tattoo or piercing needles have tiny amounts of infected blood on them and are not cleaned properly. Many people choose to get tattoos and piercings while incarcerated despite a lack of sanitary measures for the equipment. When they share the poorly sanitized equipment, it is very easy for individuals to spread the virus across the prison population.
Drugs: Many people also contract Hepatitis C from sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Even seemingly invisible amounts of blood on various types of drug equipment can spread Hepatitis C from an infected person to another.
Treating Hepatitis C
While there are treatments available for Hepatitis C, it is difficult for incarcerated individuals to have proper access to treatment for their medical needs. It is important for those with the infection to get regular medical check-ups to be sure the virus is not causing damage to the liver. While regimented environments of prisons are helpful in regular screenings, the drugs that fight the disease cost tens of thousands of dollars that prison budgets can not afford. These medicines are able to slow the damage that Hepatitis C can cause, and in some cases they can even cure it entirely. According to the New York Times, this has led to national campaigns to eliminate Hepatitis C, but the prices are ultimately up to the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the life-saving drugs.
- https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hcv/pdfs/hepcincarcerationfactsheet.pdf (last accessed March 27, 2018).
- https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/us/hepatitis-c-drugs-prisons.html (last accessed March 27, 2018).