BANGOR, Maine — Sheila Ford of Bangor is an administrative assistant who recently has found herself on an unlikely mission: to educate Mainers about the risks of communicable diseases in prison, and hopefully to get them to care about the dangers to prisoners.
That’s because her friend, a man serving a life sentence for homicide at Maine State Prison in Warren, recently was moved from a single to a double cell. He told Ford when she visited last weekend that he is frightened of what he believes is a greatly increased risk of contracting a disease such as Hepatitis C or even HIV from living in such close quarters with his new roommate.
“The bottom line is: I want to see them test everyone who comes through, and house them accordingly,” Ford said this week, adding that 90 percent of inmates eventually are released. “I think they could stop the spread of infectious diseases if they just did that. The cost of testing prisoners as they’re coming into the system is going to be a lot less than the care or treatment of HIV or Hepatitis C for a lifetime, because there’s no cure.”
Hepatitis C is a liver disease that can be fatal and can be easily spread to others through blood, even in very small amounts, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The virus also can be spread by sharing needles with an infected person, through tattoos and piercings or through sex. It is common in jails and prisons in this country, with one in three of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the U.S. testing positive for the disease. The prevalence rate in the general population of Americans for chronic Hepatitis C infection is just 1.5 percent.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the chairman of the criminal justice and public safety committee, said that the Department of Correction’s recent move to place most prisoners in a double cell has discomfited inmates who are stressed by changes to their environment. But he also said that Ford’s concerns and questions about her friend’s health are legitimate.
“She raises a real issue,” he said. “We tend to assign housing based on security classifications. We may be at a threshold, especially with the increase of geriatric inmates, to maybe expand the algebra for housing to include public health considerations, as well as security considerations.”
Ford began writing letters this spring to Maine Department of Corrections officials in order to receive clarification about the state’s policy for testing inmates for Hepatitis C. She heard from Associate Commissioner Jody Breton, who told her that every new inmate receives a full physical examination within the first two weeks of incarceration, and is also assessed for medically high-risk behaviors. Patients with a known positive Hepatitis C status are enrolled in a chronic care clinic and evaluated every six months at minimum.
“There is no medical indication or necessity, nor is it appropriate, to segregate these patients in a single cell solely because of their diagnosis,” Breton wrote. “There is no risk to any inmate being double-celled just because his or her cellmate is Hepatitis C positive. This is a consistent and usual practice in correctional systems across the nation.”
But Ford said that the status quo is not satisfactory, and that Maine can do better.
“Why can’t Maine beat the nation on this one? Show them how it’s done?” she asked. “They should be trying to prevent the spread of diseases.”
Ford knows that finding public sympathy for convicted inmates can be hard, but that exposure to communicable, potentially deadly diseases — which she likened to torture — is not part of anyone’s sentence.
“They’re suffering. They don’t have their freedom. They’re punished every single day,” she said. “Adding extra torture on top of that, I don’t think that’s necessary at all.”
At the prison, corrections officers take maximum precautions against diseases, suiting up to extract unruly prisoners from their cells and donning rubber gloves to so much as pick up a Kleenex, according to Scott Fish of the Department of Corrections.
He said that the department is not legally able to mandate Hepatitis C testing for all prisoners, in part due to privacy laws. But if staff is aware that an inmate had a disease like tuberculosis, he said, they would not double bunk that person with another inmate.
Dion, who used to run Cumberland County Jail while he was Cumberland County sheriff, said that prisons and jails have no choice about responding to chronic public health issues, including Hepatitis C.
“If you’re unwilling to deal with communicable disease, mental health or addiction in the community, then by default, jail administrators and state wardens have no other recourse than to deal with it,” he said. “Responsibility falls to us as a legal mandate. People say, the worse you treat [inmates], the better off we’ll be — but most inmates come back into society.”