Efforts are underway to get better access to hepatitis C treatment in prison populations.
In a corner of Jymie Jimerson’s house in the town of Sparta, in southwest Missouri, she has set up a kind of shrine. It has Native American art representing her Cherokee heritage alongside Willie Nelson albums, books and photos in remembrance of her late husband.
There’s a copy of Willie’s mid-’70s LP Red Headed Stranger. “When Steve was young, he had red hair and a red beard, so he always really identified with Willie’s Red Headed Stranger,” Jimerson says. “I try to keep it up there as a reminder of better days.”
Her husband, Steve Jimerson, was sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for his role in the shooting deaths of two men. Jymie says her husband’s life had been ravaged by drug abuse. But after he entered prison, he got off drugs and become a mentor for other inmates.
“Once he got inside, recovery became his life,” Jymie says. “And that was his passion until the day he died.”
Steve died on Jan. 6, 2017, of complications from hepatitis C, a liver infection that’s especially widespread among prison inmates. He was 59.
While the disease is common among the incarcerated, treatment with the latest hepatitis drugs isn’t.
Civil liberties groups in Missouri and at least seven other states are now suing to get more inmates treated with new-generation hepatitis C drugs that are highly effective but also very costly.
After Steve Jimerson was diagnosed with hepatitis C while in prison, Jymie says he was on the lookout for news of treatment advances.
In 2013, Gilead Sciences introduced Sovaldi, the first of a new generation of drugs called direct-acting antivirals that can cure hepatitis C and with fewer side effects than the previous treatments. But the excitement was dampened by the drug’s price. A full course of treatment cost $84,000.
In 2016, around 5,000 inmates in Missouri’s inmates had hepatitis C, and no more than 14 of them received the drugs, according to internal state data obtained by the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis. That’s about 15 percent of the 32,000 peopleincarcerated in Missouri’s prisons.
Jymie says that her husband wasn’t given direct-acting antivirals. By the fall of 2016, Jimerson’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and he grew pessimistic about the prospects for a cure.
“He told me that if someone had to die to get the DOC [Department of Corrections] to change their policy, he was OK with it being him,” Jymie says.
As recently as 2012, scores of Missouri inmates were being treated with older hepatitis C drugs, including one called interferon that is notorious for its debilitating side effects.
But in 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons started changing treatment guidelines to replace the old hepatitis C drugs with new ones.
Many states follow those guidelines, including Missouri, according to a spokesperson from Corizon Health, the private company that provides health care for Missouri’s inmates.
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