In 2015, local attorney Frances Crockett Carpenter started receiving letters from incarcerated people who were being denied critical treatment for Hepatitis C, also known as HCV.
“It wasn’t just one letter here and there; it was a lot of letters that sparked my attention,” said Frances. “So, I started doing some investigation as to why inmates weren’t receiving treatment.”
What she learned was troubling. Many incarcerated people reported being denied treatment for arbitrary reasons, like minor disciplinary infractions.
“You can’t deny people the medical care they have a constitutional right to receive because they committed a disciplinary infraction,” Frances said. “Lack of medical care can never be justified this way.”
Lack of proper treatment for the blood-borne disease results in chronic physical and mental pain and irreparable liver damage that can eventually lead to death. Yet corrections departments throughout the United States, including in New Mexico, have long argued that treatment is too costly and have denied eligibility to most people, including those with disciplinary infractions, as a way of rationing.
Inadequate treatment has only made the problem worse. In 2019, New Mexico had the highest prevalence of HCV in the nation, the highest concentration of which was in New Mexico prisons. Nearly half of New Mexico’s prison population was infected.
Denying people behind bars necessary health care is not only wrong -- it’s unconstitutional.
Denying people behind bars necessary health care is not only wrong -- it’s unconstitutional. The ACLU has filed class action lawsuits in states like Tennessee, Colorado, and Missouri, on behalf of incarcerated people who were denied HCV treatment, arguing the practice constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
The ACLU of New Mexico has pushed change in our state, working with cooperating attorneys Alyssa Quijano and Frances Crockett Carpenter, to urge the government to tackle the HCV epidemic and provide proper treatment for incarcerated people for years. Our efforts, and the efforts of other local advocates, recently paid off when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham allocated funding for HCV treatment of incarcerated people in the 2020 budget.
We’re already seeing some signs of success. A recent response to an ACLU of New Mexico Public Records request shows that between January and March of 2021, New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) had an 86% success rate in treating HCV in 159 patients. If they continue at this pace, they could eradicate HCV in prisons in approximately four years.
“For too long, incarcerated people infected with HCV suffered needlessly,” said Leon Howard, legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “We’re relieved the state is finally prioritizing treatment and taking important steps to protect the health and dignity of incarcerated people. We will continue to monitor the situation in NMCD and are cautiously optimistic about the results we recently received.”
“For too long, incarcerated people infected with HCV suffered needlessly,” said Leon Howard, legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “We’re relieved the state is finally prioritizing treatment and taking important steps to protect the health and dignity of incarcerated people."
Our work is not over. Each day, incarcerated people in our state suffer needlessly from lack of access to adequate medical care. Chronic illnesses go untreated, emergencies are ignored, and patients with serious mental illness are denied care. And as we’ve seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, facilities fail to provide proper supplies and institute proper protocols to mitigate spread of disease.
NMCD must continue to reimagine it’s approach to healthcare and provide individuals with access to necessary medical treatment. Not just because incarcerated people have a constitutionally protected right to adequate medical care and deserve to be treated with humanity, but because doing so will make our communities healthier in the long run.
“Treating HCV in prison has major public health benefits,” said ACLU Cooperating Attorney, Alyssa Quijano. “Most incarcerated people will return to their communities after they’ve completed their sentences. They deserve to return healthy for the sake of their families, their neighbors, and loved ones. Controlling the spread of disease inside prisons will save incarcerated people’s lives and the lives of our community members.”