Hep C: The Deadliest Killer in Colorado’s Prisons Is a Curable Virus
BY ALAN PRENDERGAST | TUESDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2016 AT 6:50 A.M.
When Joseph Deaguero went to prison almost three years ago, he had a pretty good idea of what to expect. He had been behind bars before, for a series of assaults and domestic-violence arrests. But this time around, Deaguero, who’s currently 52 years old and serving a twelve-year sentence for second-degree assault, began to wonder if he was going to survive the experience.
In 1996, Deaguero learned that he’d tested positive for hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver and has infected 17 percent of the American prison population. At the time he was told not to worry about it; the virus can lie dormant in the system for decades without manifesting any symptoms, and about one in six of those infected will “clear” the virus on their own. In other cases, though, the virus leads to chronic liver disease, and a sizable number of the chronic cases — between 25 and 40 percent, depending on which studies you believe — can eventually develop into cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Shortly after he started serving his latest sentence, Deaguero complained of symptoms of a hep C flare-up: chronic fatigue, aching muscles and joints, a constant throbbing pain in his lower back. He went to the prison infirmary for tests and was told that there were new wonder drugs coming on the market that could actually cure hep C, in more than 95 percent of the cases treated. But before he could qualify for the medication, the Colorado Department of Corrections required that he take alcohol- and drug-education programs that can last from six months to a year.
Deaguero took the programs. Last spring he contacted the prison medical providers again to ask when he could start taking the cure. He was told he didn’t qualify for treatment. The new drugs are obscenely expensive — at full retail value, as much as $1,100 a pill, or $95,000 for one patient’s daily dosages over twelve weeks. According to DOC standards, Deaguero’s liver wasn’t damaged enough yet to justify the expense. Medical staff would continue to monitor him, and if tests indicated that his condition had worsened to a sufficient degree, he would then become eligible for treatment.
Deaguero filed a grievance, arguing that it would be better to treat him now rather than risk further damage and possibly the $500,000 cost of a liver transplant down the road. “To invest in my treatment now would make a lot of sense at this point in my life,” he wrote. “Not when it’s too late.”
His grievance was denied. He is now appealing. “They provide the least treatment possible, and it takes forever to be seen,” he says. “I understand it’s expensive. So is treating cancer, but the DOC does it. They are not consistent on how they grant treatment.”
Complaints about the prison system’s severely rationed approach to treating hep C aren’t confined to Deaguero. Many of the 2,200 inmates in DOC who’ve been diagnosed with hep C worry about not only worsening aches and inflamed livers, but also their one-in-five odds of a protracted, agonizing death from cirrhosis and organ failure. “I am aware of four others just in my living unit that have hep C and are in the same situation as me,” says 61-year-old John Spring, who was diagnosed with the virus in 2005 and has been approved for monitoring but not treatment. “I know of three inmates who have died because the DOC did not treat them or delayed their treatment.”