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Prisons Experience Outbreaks of Infectious Disease

Prisons in Vermont and Pennsylvania dealt with serious outbreaks of infectious disease this past August resulting in the disinfection of an office complex and the filing of a class action lawsuit, respectively.


In late July 2002, an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease, a sometimes fatal bacterial infection, began in Vermont's Waterbury prison and spread to a surrounding office complex infecting a total of 23 people and prompting efforts to disinfect the complex. Of the 16 most seriously affected by the disease, 14 of which were former prisoners, all but one were out of the hospital as of August 14, 2002. The rambling complex employs and houses more than 1500 people and is home to many state agencies, including the state women's prison.


After an outbreak of colonizing methicillin-resistant staphyloccus aureus, or MRSA, six former or current prisoners at the Bucks County Prison in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, are suing the county for delay and denial of medical treatment. The class action lawsuit, filed in federal court on September 18, 2002, seeks more than $150,000 per prisoner in damages.

In August 2002, several female prisoners contacted attorneys Anita Albert and Martha Sperling and told them they were not being treated for a skin condition they believed to be MRSA, an antibiotic resistant staph infection which can cause boils, lesions, infections and pneumonia.

Alberts subpoenaed Doylestown Hospital and found that 376 people were infected with staphyloccus aureus, though not all had the resistant strain. Still, "The harm that can be caused by staph aureus is the same whether it's resistant to methicillin," said Alberts. "It can be fatal if it settles in the bloodstream."

On August 27, 2002, in response to a complaint by Alberts and Sperling, federal Magistrate Judge Diane M. Welsh ordered the testing of all 1,115 prisoners and staff; 34 tested positive.

The judge also ordered the prison to inform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the potential outbreak.

Sources: Atlanta Journal Constitution, Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press

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