The Needle and the Damage Done

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"They tell me I'm no longer a candidate for interferon because I had nicotine in my system," Brown says. Although he won't cop to lighting up at Kit Carson, he notes that smoking was permitted at his halfway house, "and I don't know how long a trace of nicotine stays in your system."

Within the DOC, though, nicotine is considered a "substance of abuse" -- and ample reason to deny interferon treatment. "If you're cheating on nicotine, you're cheating on the rules for not using drugs," McGarry explains. "We're given a certain amount of funds to take care of the inmates, and you have to make decisions how you use it. A person who's breaking the rules, I just don't think that's a very good candidate for getting a $25,000 therapy."

Brown contends he's being denied on bureaucratic rather than medical grounds. "I can understand denying you interferon if you're doing dope," he says. "If you're doing heroin or speed or cocaine, you're hammering your liver anyway. But in my case, we're not talking about hard drugs.

"Look, I got this [disease] in prison. Yes, I was doing some illegal activities in prison. Whether I got it from drugs or tattoos, we shall never know. But because I'm in prison, does that make me less of a human being? Because I've gotten some hot UAs [urinalyses], should that be used to deny me treatment? I don't think so. I could teach the classes."

Unlike most prisoners, Brown has an advocate on the outside campaigning for his treatment -- his wife, Nancy, a medical assistant who's cajoled, prodded and browbeaten DOC officials and administrators at Kit Carson, a private prison under contract with the state, concerning her husband's care.

"He's literally dying in there," Nancy Brown says. "I have written. I have called. The warden got mad at me and said, 'You have something to say, you put it in writing.' They won't even talk to me. I've told them I will hold them all responsible if my husband dies because they denied him treatment."

Grant Brown has a parole hearing next summer and expects to be returned to a halfway house long before that. "I will be in community [corrections] before I ever get a biopsy from DOC," he says. "I have almost fourteen years in on a nonviolent property crime. The chances of me getting parole are pretty good. If they don't want to treat me, fine. Release me and let me treat myself."

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."

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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast