HIV, Hepatitis C Rates in Massachusetts Prisons Among Highest in United States, Report Says
The HIV and hepatitis C prevalence rates in Massachusetts prisons are among the highest in the United States, according to a study scheduled to be released this week by the Massachusetts Public Health Association, the Boston Globe reports. According to the report, Massachusetts prisons have the seventh-highest HIV prevalence rate in the country, and 27% of men and 44% of women entering the state's prison system are infected with hepatitis C, according to the Globe. The high disease prevalence rates make state prisons "incubators of illnesses," and public health officials are concerned that inmates will spread the viruses to "disadvantaged" communities when they are released, according to the Globe. Public health advocates have called for medical care improvements for parolees and have urged the prison system to continue treatment after inmates are released. "You just can't take a group of people and segregate them off to a no man's land when you know within a period of time they're coming back," Lyn Levy, executive director of SPAN, an organization devoted to reintegrating freed inmates into communities, said. Levy added, "[I]t behooves us to provide prisoners when they're in custody and when they get out with consistent treatment." The report does not detail possible causes for the high disease prevalence rates in prisons, but disease specialists theorized that injection drug use is a likely cause, according to the Globe. "Substance abuse is clearly the predominant risk factor," Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the state's director of communicable disease control, said, adding, "And if you look at the pattern of imprisonment in this country over the years, drug crimes are drawing longer and longer sentences."
Prisoner advocates say that health care quality "varies sharply" between prisons and that the system should be improved, according to the Globe. Justin Latini, spokesperson for the state Department of Correction, said that officials have "moved aggressively" in recent years to improve prison health care, but he added that the agency "could always improve any system." Rachel Wilson, the study's author, said that treatment in prisons is "for naught" unless officials assure that care continues when inmates are released, the Globe reports. State Sen. Richard Moore (D), chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care, has introduced a bill that would mandate that inmates become eligible for the MassHealth Essential, the state's health plan for low-income residents. Inmates at prisons in Western Massachusetts run by the Hampden County Correctional Center are linked with a medical team from a community health center in the prisoner's neighborhood that oversees the inmate's care in and out of prison, an initiative "hailed as a national model," according to the Globe (Smith, Boston Globe, 10/19).