HCV and Prison

Before Prison

Some people who are in prison become incarcerated due to illegal activities related to their drug use. Some people commit violent crimes while under the influence of drugs or while experiencing withdrawal and others commit non-violent crimes in an attempt to obtain drugs directly or to obtain money or valuable objects to sell or trade for drugs.

One of the most common transmissions of hepatitis C is through the use of IV drugs. This combination of the virus being spread during drug use and drug use often tying to a criminal record makes it fairly common for a person who is going to prison to have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus at some point. However, hepatitis C often has no symptoms and the symptoms that are most common are often mistaken for symptoms of drug use or drug withdrawal. This can cause a person to have no idea of their hepatitis C status for a long period of time.

During Prison

When first entering prison, inmates are checked for contagious skin diseases such as lice or scabies and some privatized prisons perform blood or urine testing to check for pregnancy. The intention is for the prison system to be aware of any inmate that may have an immediate medical concern that may require treatment by the prison system. Outside of these test results, inmates who enter prison may do so with current medical records, alerting the prison warden to ongoing medical concerns. These would include diabetes or cancer diagnoses. Other than these, inmates are often not treated medically unless there is an ongoing complaint by the prisoner or unless the prisoner shows obvious signs of illness or distress. This means that a person with hepatitis C may not be tested for the virus or treated for this illness until or unless serious symptoms are present.

For a number of years, there has been an ongoing debate regarding medical care within the prison system. Some people believe that inmates should be treated with all of the medical care available because they are human beings. Others believe that inmates should not receive any medical care that is non-emergent, as criminals do not deserve better medical care than many non-incarcerated and law abiding citizens. While this debate continues, prisons are continuing to operate on a budget, which often only allows them to cover the most necessary medical treatment. This may mean that inmates without medical concerns or who are not showing signs of illness visible to the prison staff may go months or years without seeing a doctor or nurse.

After Prison

The process of exiting prison is different for each inmate. In some cases, an inmate has a family to go home to, where there is a bed to sleep in, food to eat, and any medical needs may be met quickly. In other cases, the inmate’s time in prison has led them to lack access to guaranteed housing, food, or any other basic needs. This leads some inmates to move into transitional housing or homeless shelters where they may be exposed to viruses and other medical stressors. It may also result in some inmates returning to their prior friends and breaking the rules of their parole simply to ensure access to shelter and nutrition, which may increase the chances that they return to prison with very little time between convictions. Whatever circumstances the person is in following their incarceration, many doctors recommend that they visit their physician or a local free clinic as soon as possible, even if the person does not believe they have any medical problems to discuss. This visit can allow medical personnel to discuss the prison experience with the person, to find out whether there may be medical concerns or risks of exposure, and it can allow the former inmate to be tested or treated for any illnesses or injuries as quickly as possible.

How Does This Impact Me?

If you have recently been incarcerated, you can contact your local doctor or clinic to schedule an appointment to discuss your medical needs and concerns. If you live in a community where a local free clinic exists, you may decide to donate your time or resources to supporting their efforts if you believe that everyone should have access to medical care, regardless of their prison history. If you prefer to think in a broader scale, you may wish to discuss your beliefs with your politicians at a local, state, or federal level. By voicing your opinion and volunteering your time, you can let your community and your political representatives understand the needs of people who have been incarcerated and you can help those people to have consistent access to medical professionals.1-6

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The HepatitisC.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
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