HARRISONBURG, Va. (CN) – An inmate with Hepatitis C claims in a class action lawsuit that Virginia’s Department of Corrections refuses to treat him and other prisoners with the disease because it’s more cost-effective to let an inmate die than to provide care.
In a complaint filed June 26 in the Harrisonburg, Va. federal court, Terry Riggleman says the corrections department and its medical director violated his constitutional rights by knowingly refusing treatment.
Riggleman, who was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2005, claims prison officers refused to treat him for years because they said his disease “has not progressed far enough.”
“Once these defendants know any inmate under their care and custody has been infected … [they] have a constitutional mandate to treat an inmate’s … infection,” the 28-page complaint says.
And that mandate is even stronger now, he contends, because the disease can be cured.
“But instead of curing [it], defendants have permitted inmates to be infected by [the virus] without treatment until they reach their deathbed,” the complaint says.
The virus spreads through contact with infected blood and over time causes chronic liver damage. If left untreated, Hepatitis C can cause death.
Riggleman says that up to 40 percent of the inmates housed with him at the Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, Va. have Hepatitis C.
According to the complaint, the disease’s prevalence among inmates is attributed to the use of injectable drugs, unsanitary tattooing and piercing performed behind bars, and unprotected sex.
Riggleman says because prisoners can ill-afford costly liver transplants, that are almost entirely dependent on access to anti-viral drugs to slow the progression of the disease.
In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration approved Harvoni to treat Hepatitis C. Other drugs, notably Solvadi and Olysio, are also used to treat it.
After the drugs hit the market, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that the Federal Bureau of Prisons adopt new clinical practice guidelines and incorporate the drugs to treat inmates.
But Riggleman says that advice was ignore and rather than treat inmates, the defendants allow them to languish before offering them a bare minimum of treatment.
Instead, inmates are told that the department’s health services unit is “revaluating their treatment protocol” and that the prisoner’s treatment is “pending approval.”
Riggleman says he complained about his lack of treatment for months after he began to experience intense pain and other side effects of his Hepatitis C, and even had his family make phones calls begging for his treatment at an outside hospital.
Riggleman says after he learned of the new Hepatitis C drugs hitting the market, he requested treatment with them and was denied again.
He says he then spent more than four years trying to obtain his private medical records in order to launch a civil suit, but was repeatedly denied access to the files or told they didn’t exist.
Riggleman claims despite his repeatedly being seen by doctors for chronic pain, they never told him his Hepatitis was worsening.
He said matters came to a head in February 2017 when he discovered that years of his viral load samples were missing.
Riggleman seeks a declaration that the department’s refusal to treat his Hepatitis C is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and an order directing it to provide adequate care to both to him and other, similarly-situated inmates.
Riggleman is represented by Jessica Sherman-Stoltz of Nexus Caridades in Verona, Va..
A representative of the Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.