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Judge blasts Florida in final order requiring treatment of inmates for hepatitis C

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones claims conditions improving in Florida’s prisons

Julie Jones' short tenure as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections has seen disturbances, death and change. In a one-on-one interview, Jones talks about charges against the system, and what she's doing to try to improve conditions.
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Julie Jones' short tenure as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections has seen disturbances, death and change. In a one-on-one interview, Jones talks about charges against the system, and what she's doing to try to improve conditions.

Blasting the Florida Department of Corrections’ “long and sordid history of neglecting” inmates who have hepatitis C infections, and citing a “risk of such deliberate indifference reoccurring in the future,” a federal judge ordered Thursday evening that the state must treat all inmates with the disease.

The order is the result of a class-action lawsuit begun by three Florida inmates nearly two years ago. According to the order, the truth uncovered at earlier hearings was “crystal”: that the Florida Department of Corrections did not treat inmates with this infection because the drugs used to cure it, called “direct-acting antivirals,” were too expensive.

In an order that “recast” his earlier findings into a permanent injunction, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker instructed the department to screen and treat all inmates for hepatitis C. In his earlier preliminary injunction filed in late 2017, the department was required to treat prisoners by certain deadlines depending on the severity of the disease, but did not require treatment at the early stages.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection that’s most often contracted through intravenous drug use, but it can also be transmitted through tattooing or blood transfusions. If it’s not treated, it can lead to liver infection, liver cancer, bleeding, bloating and a painful death.

Walker’s 68-page ruling will likely prove very costly to the state, which is now finalizing its budget in the last two weeks of the legislative session. The direct-acting antiviral drugs can cost tens of thousands of dollars per patient, and it’s estimated that at least 20,000 prisoners may have hepatitis C.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate’s criminal justice budgeting committee, said that he is waiting for direction from the department and the governor’s office with how to proceed, but this order will definitely have impact on the state’s budget.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt the costs are going to go up,” he said, saying the increase could be around $20 million, but it’s unclear whether that will impact this year’s budget or next.

A press release by the Florida Justice Institute, which represented the three inmate plaintiffs, celebrated the win as a “victory for public health in Florida” that would save inmates from more preventable deaths. The institute noted that one of the three plaintiffs, Carl Hoffer, died waiting for a liver transplant as this case was pending.

Their chief lawyer, Randall Berg Jr., also died last week, according to the release.

Department spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in a statement Friday that they are “thoroughly” reviewing the order.

“The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to ensuring all inmates in our custody are provided medically necessary treatment that is in line with national standards and our constitutional responsibilities,” she said.

Walker wrote that the department had made “progress” treating inmates within the past 15 months, but it doesn’t erase the past wrongs.

Julie Jones was secretary of the Department of Corrections until February, when she resigned. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Mark Inch to the position. The Department of Corrections uses a vendor to provide healthcare for about 100,000 inmates.

The order requires the department, starting in June, to file a monthly status report to the court that lists how many inmates have been screened for having hepatitis C, how many have it and at which stages, and how many are receiving treatment.

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This story was updated Friday to include the statement from the Department of Corrections and comments from Sen. Jeff Brandes on the ruling’s impact on the state budget.

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