WASHINGTON — The Arizona Department of Corrections is promising a federal judge that it will dramatically increase the number of incarcerated people it tests and treats for hepatitis C.
In a court filing Friday, the department outlined a plan to clear its backlog of incarcerated people waiting to be treated for the virus. Under the plan, Arizona promises to treat at least 110 people each month who have been awaiting treatment, as well as at least 70% of all people who newly tested positive for the virus in the last month.
The department is also pledging to initiate a massive testing drive to catch new cases. Under the agreement, it will offer testing to every prisoner who doesn’t have a test on file. It will also test all new prisoners within a month of their arrival, unless the person objects.
Within a year, the prison system also pledges to test and treat every willing prisoner before their planned release date back into the community.
The plan represents a potential breakthrough for people incarcerated in Arizona, who have been largely denied treatment for the deadly virus, which can be cured with a once-daily pill. The Department of Corrections estimated in 2021 that roughly 8,000 people in its care were infected with the virus, but the prison system has historically treated just a fraction of that population. At least 112 people in the state died from hepatitis C-related complications from 2014 to 2019, according to a recent STAT investigation.
The new protocol is the result of a decade-long lawsuit from prison rights advocates challenging numerous aspects of the Arizona prison system’s medical and mental health care. Nearly all of the hepatitis C protocols Arizona agreed to Friday were originally proposed in January by the federal judge overseeing the case. On Friday, the Department of Corrections and the plaintiffs in the case issued a joint proposal accepting nearly all of the judge’s hepatitis C proposals.
Advocates are hopeful that the state’s willingness to accept the order is a strong indication that it is finally willing to improve its prison health care program.
Alison Hardy, a senior staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, which represents incarcerated people in the case, told STAT that the departments’ choice to not appeal the judge’s order “represents an enormous change from the pattern of conduct that we’ve had for the last 10 years.”
The state had previously failed to overhaul its prison health care program despite orders from a judge to do so. Arizona officials promised back in 2014 to revamp their entire medical system, but the state never implemented many of the changes. In a 2021 report, a court-appointed expert noted “for years, the [department] has failed to follow the community standard for treating patients with [hepatitis C] and, as a result, patients have been harmed, and some have died.”
Friday’s order comes in the wake of a major leadership change at the agency. In January, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs appointed longtime Maine prison official Ryan Thornell as the new director of corrections. Thornell oversaw a major overhaul of Maine’s hepatitis C treatment program in 2020 following a prisoner-led lawsuit challenging the state’s previous policy.
Thornell has spoken definitively about the benefits of treating people for the virus while in prison.
“Although funding is difficult to come by, it was very difficult for anybody to argue for a better use of money,” Thornell told STAT in 2021, regarding Maine’s decision to spend $5.5 million to ramp up treatment for the virus.