Death on the Installment Plan

Medical neglect, chronic disease, a hepatitis epidemic. Some Colorado prisoners pay for their crimes with their lives.

"The DOC accepts financial responsibility for anyone we send to the university for liver transplantation," McGarry says. "If someone in our custody satisfies the transplant board, we will pay for that." The department has already paid for bone-marrow transplants for convicts with leukemia, he adds, as well as a kidney transplant for a diabetic woman who was on dialysis.

Some states have taken a different approach when faced with inmates who require organ transplants or other major medical procedures. They let them out, a practice known as "compassionate release" (or "patient dumping," as one California prison executive recently described it on Sixty Minutes). But Colorado has been reluctant to bend the terms of sentence for its hep C prisoners, even when the inmate's family offers to assume responsibility for his or her care. Prisoners are full of stories about cons who can't get treatment and can't get paroled, such as Arturo Guzman, a 34-year-old chronic drug offender who died in September after a long battle with hepatitis C. Despite his terminal condition, Guzman had been turned down for parole repeatedly, most recently in March.

Of course, most people couldn't care less about the health and welfare of addicts, rapists and killers. But Gottula argues that the public should start paying attention; the walls that separate the average citizen from convicts' epidemics are thinner than they appear.

"Most of these people aren't in there forever," he says. "The public ought to be interested, because these individuals are going to cycle back into our communities, with all their health problems and communicable diseases. And if most of them are in there for some drug-related activity, why aren't we working on that? We lock people up and don't take care of the primary problem."

Jailhouse lawyer Ramos says the public only hears about the lucky prisoner who gets a transplant or expensive drugs, not the swarm of medical problems in prison that go untreated. In his view, his keepers are no better than the care they offer to those they keep.

"Prisoners are looked at as less than human, but every human being has a right to live," he says. "If prisoners need treatment, they should get it. Instead, the people who run these places just sit back and watch them slowly die. To me, that's barbaric."

Click here to read Terry Akers's account of his fight with hep C.

Click here to read related stories.

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