WARREN — Even before COVID-19, there was a lesser-known virus making its way through Maine’s prison system — hepatitis C.
Inmate Mathiew Loisel is one of more than 550 people behind bars in the Maine State Prison system with hep C.
“My liver hurts, sometimes during the day, sometimes I could just be walking, working out or moving and my liver will start becoming hard and hurt,” Loisel said Tuesday during a phone interview from the prison.
After being denied access to an antiviral medication that often cures the disease, he filed a federal lawsuit claiming the denial violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
That got the attention of Berman & Simmons and Andrew Schmidt Law. Attorneys from the two law firms spent the last year negotiating with prison leaders.
“When it was clear they had a real public health problem, they opted to come to the table and they opted to enact real policy changes,” said Miriam Johnson, an attorney with Berman & Simmons.
She added, “Maine is now part of a wave of what other states are starting to do. Other states are realizing that by not treating incarcerated individuals, that that’s a constitutional violation.”
The hepatitis C virus often spreads among drug users who share needles.
“It is a bloodborne illness,” Johnson said. “So if we’re a state that has a very high opioid epidemic, that might be a related issue.”
Drug overdoses killed 380 Mainers in 2019, and 127 in the first quarter of this year. More than 80 percent of the deaths involved opioids.
“Doing nothing is much more costly than doing preventative care,” Johnson said.
Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medication given in pill form.
“Here was an opportunity to actually have systematic systemic change that would result in a change of policies and procedures in the ways in which healthcare is delivered at the Maine State Prison,” said Loisel, who is serving time for murder.
“One of the things we have learned from COVID is when there is an outbreak it’s really best to treat it as a public health issue,” she said. “It’s best for everybody, really the entire state, to be treating everyone.”