Resource: Hepatitis C Litigation: Healing Inmates as a Public Health Strategy

By: Robert Katz

April 4, 2020

Social Science Research Network

Curing people of infectious diseases has the side-benefit of protecting uninfected persons from infection. A prime example of this is when inmates are cured of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), long regarded as the most lethal infectious disease in the United States. HCV is more prevalent in prisons than the general population, and most infected inmates are ultimately released. According to public health experts, one of the most effective ways to combat the HCV epidemic is to treat infected inmates before they can infect others.

In recent years, HCV-infected inmates around the country have filed federal class action lawsuits alleging that state prison systems violate the Eighth Amendment (no cruel and unusual punishment) by failing to treat their disease. Two of these lawsuits have prevailed on the merits, and several states have settled lawsuits by agreeing to expand treatment. Although this outcome improves the health of HCV-infected inmates and members of the general population, it may have the unintended consequence of harming uninfected inmates by reducing the resources available to meet non-HCV-related health needs. Yet federal courts can avert this outcome by compelling states to appropriate additional sums specifically for treating HCV in prisons.