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Hepatitis C Epidemic Threatens California Prisoners

Hepatitis C, a potentially deadly strain of liver disease, is spreading out of control through the California prison system. Blood tests conducted on 4,764 incoming prisoners for a three month period in 1994 showed that 41 percent were infected with the disease. Unlike some other forms of hepatitis, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

The California Department of Corrections demanded $2 million dollars from the state Legislature "to conduct further studies and treat the disease." But, in November, 1997, the Wall Street Journal revealed prisoncrats were forced to quietly return $1.8 million of those funds because the study was not finished on time and the promised medical treatment was never provided.

Adding to the problem, tracking and treating infected prisoners is all but impossible as they move from prison to prison because the Department doggedly hangs onto an antiquated and ineffective paper filing system for the medical record's of the state's 155,000 prisoners. There is little or no coordination between the 33 prisons, dozens of camps, and parole violator facilities. The outbreak may pose a threat to people outside as well.

Most people in prison are eventually released back into the community. Yet, the Department provides no follow-up care or tracking of parolees carrying the hepatitis C virus. Despite the risk, neither the Department nor lameduck Governor Pete Wilson have any plans to bring the prison system's medical record keeping into the 20th century or provide aggressive treatment for infectious diseases such as hepatitis C.

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