The Needle and the Damage Done

In prison, getting hepatitis C is easy. Getting treatment isn't.

For most of the DOC's hepatitis C patients, though, quick release isn't an option. Within a few months, the number of "candidates" who have completed the classes and are clamoring for interferon is likely to grow exponentially. But the current budget for hepatitis C treatment is only a million dollars per year; administrators will be faced with many more hard choices about who receives the pricey drugs and who doesn't while lobbying the legislature for more resources.

"This is a real problem," McGarry says. "The light at the end of the tunnel is a train. Everyone says that this disease has the potential to bankrupt a prison system, but we just have to find a way to deal with it."

Brett Amole
Nancy Brown has battled prison officials over hep C treatment for her husband.
Brett Amole
Nancy Brown has battled prison officials over hep C treatment for her husband.

Long before he found out about the cirrhosis, Terry Akers began to write the story of his life.

It's not a particularly glamorous or romantic story. Told in a flat, unadorned style, in the same poisoned vein as the autobiographical novels of ex-con Edward Bunker, it's a chronicle of a wasted life, of explosive anger and rock-stupid criminality and senseless killing, and of the desperate alliances and betrayals devised by men who live in cages. It is unsparing in its appraisal of prison life and its deeply flawed protagonist.

Akers still works on the manuscript when he feels strong enough. He's vowed to finish it before he dies, seeing in the work at least a shot at redemption. He hopes to find a nonprofit, maybe some group that works with troubled youth, that might publish it, keeping any profits for its mission. His ideal reader, the audience he's trying to reach, is a kid stewing in a juvenile detention center somewhere with nothing to do.

"Maybe some of those little hardheads on the street would get a chance to read it, and it would make a difference to them," he says. "See, it was people like me I looked up to as a kid. The only people I saw worthy of respect were dope dealers and such. I went from stealing candy bars to burglaries, stealing cars, and it all seemed like minor bullshit -- until I was fucking jammed. Because I never addressed the situation, everything I did just got me in deeper. I want them to know that, if you keep on that path, after a while there's no way out."

His hand glides over the tattoos. Winner Takes All. Asked what it means, he says there's no hidden message. Just what's there.

"If you survive in here," he says, "you're a winner."

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