Surviving Hepatitis C in AZ Jails, State Prisons, and Federal Detention Centers.

Surviving Hepatitis C in AZ Jails, State Prisons, and Federal Detention Centers.
The "Hard Time" blogspot is a volunteer-run site for the political organization of people with Hepatitis C behind and beyond prison walls, their loved ones, and whomever cares to join us. We are neither legal nor medical professionals. Some of us may organize for support, but this site is primarily dedicated to education and activism; we are fighting for prevention, detection, treatment, and a cure for Hepatitis C, particularly down in the trenches where most people are dying - in prison or on the street... Join us.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Justicia Ahora: Resist State Violence this Friday.

National Day of Action Against Police Brutality

Friday, October 22, 2010
11am- 1pm



Arizona Department of Corrections
1601 W. Jefferson St. (at 16th Ave)

Phoenix, AZ 85007

(park in the SE lot at Wes Bolin off Jefferson - the ADC is across the street.)

17 suicides/15mos
5 homicides/9 months

6,000 HCV+ prisoners and counting…


For more information, contact:
Peggy at 480-580-6807 or


(and come prepared to kick some Hep C ass)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New York DOC: Hilton, Hep C and Class Action.

I have more research to do on this case - and a ton more stories like it to post, though I don't want to be too discouraging. These are really pretty heart-breaking. I think it's important to show, though, that the corrections industry has a long history and pattern of neglect, and that nothing has changed in the prisons as far as Hep C goes in over 10 years - except that more of the population is infected and dying now. Julie and I walked into the middle of an on-going battle raging in different parts of the country; we just opened up another front in Arizona.

This came out in 2005. I'm writing to this guy for help telling our story, too. It's time to turn this thing around.


Rotting Away

Thousands of New York inmates have hepatitis C. Only a few hundred get treatment.

Kai Wright

Village Voice
November 29, 2005

It's hard to imagine how a doctor could miss Jimi Hammerstein's primary health risk. The graying Brooklyn native spent most of the last 10 years upstate for slinging dope in Park Slope—back when the neighborhood was still in transition. "I remember when this neighborhood wasn't nothing like this," he says, laughing as he sits in a drop-in center for ex-offenders on Fourth Avenue, the Slope's still-gritty border with Downtown Brooklyn. "This was like, dope land!"

Dope land's geography extended into the prison compounds Hammerstein bounced between. His habit continued once he was inside, and just as intensely. Most inmates snort heroin rather than inject it, but as Hammerstein describes the scene, "You got the die-hard dope fiends like I was, where there's only one way to fly. If you're going to do any kind of substance, you might as well shoot it."

Hammerstein's commitment to the needle made him a textbook candidate for two of the modern era's most aggressive communicable diseases: HIV and hepatitis C—a deadly virus that, when left untreated, slowly devours your liver. He tested positive for HIV back in 1989, before he entered prison. He says he copped to the infection at the beginning of his two bids, but he'd never heard of hep C and claims no one— certainly not corrections health officials—ever asked him about it.

Only after his release last year did the questions begin. "People used to say to me, 'Oh, you're HIV; are you hep C too?' " Hammerstein remembers. "I'd say no. And they'd say, 'Oh, that's unusual.' " He'd shrug the idea off. "I'd been taking tests up north for years, and no one mentioned anything about hep C." His doc on the outside finally insisted he get tested, and in what should have been no surprise, he was positive.

Like Hammerstein, thousands of prisoners around the country are slowly dying from a wholly treatable disease because corrections officials are doing everything possible to avoid caring for them. New York is among the worst offenders, as by most estimates it boasts more inmates living with hep C than any other state. But after years of advocates and inmates fruitlessly lobbying for change, a series of recent lawsuits, including a class action case now pending in federal court, appears to have finally forced the state's hand.

Over the last three decades, hep C has been a stealthy but virulent sidekick to its celebrity sister HIV. Nearly 3 million people nationwide now have chronic infections—triple the HIV caseload. They are uniquely concentrated in prisons: At least 14 percent of New York's inmates are known to have hep C. And as these legions barrel toward the disease's end stage, in which the inflamed liver turns cirrhotic, they promise to collapse the teetering liver-transplant market. Already, hep C is the number one reason for swapping out a liver; the waiting list for transplants is 17,000 people deep and growing. The sooner you start treatment, the less likely you'll need one.

In response to growing awareness about the epidemic—and its concentration among drug users who cycle in and out of incarceration—the state corrections department says it now offers tests to all incoming prisoners whose profiles raise red flags, as Hammerstein's should have. But even for those who get screened, learning you've got the disease is where, for most, the process ends. According to a Justice Department census, as of 2000, only about 300 of the state's estimated 10,000 hep C–positive inmates were being treated.

Prison health advocates charge this dismal rate is no accident. Coincidentally or not, treating hep C is one of the more expensive tasks in medicine. The multi-drug regimen can cost as much as $35,000 per patient. Corrections already spends almost $23 million a year on AIDS meds, nearly 40 percent of its whole pharmacy budget.

Until mid October, when the department began revising its policies in response to ongoing litigation, any inmate needing hep C treatment who had a history of using drugs—as does almost everyone with the virus—was required to first enroll in a six-month class for users. The official approach, which has been slowly shifting over the last couple of years, originally forced inmates to complete the course before getting treatment. It was expansive and unbending: If you'd ever done drugs or alcohol in your life, you had to take the class.

"You got guys that been in the system eight, nine, 10 years," scoffs Rahiem (not his real name), a hep C–positive lifer at the medium-security facility in Auburn who refused to take the drug class and so hasn't gotten treatment. "They don't have no record of drug use from disciplinary actions. But they're denied treatment." Rahiem wears long gray dreadlocks and stares with measured intensity when insisting that he last got high in 1973. But his old girlfriend once got charged with smuggling whiskey into the visiting room, he says, so now he's stuck with a user label.

"These rules are barriers that they set up," complains Romeo Sanchez, a hep C–positive ex-offender who organizes prison activism at the New York City AIDS Housing Network, "because they don't want to pay for it."

But as Robert Hilton found out, even if you go along with the rules, the outcome is often the same: no treatment. Hilton is the lead plaintiff in the new class action, filed in federal court on August 17.

Hilton began treatment for hep C at Bellevue in 2002. But a few months after starting, he became homeless, and his treatment was interrupted. In August 2004, he was locked up on a parole violation and shipped upstate to Altona. Upon intake there, he underwent a routine exam at which he told doctors about his infection, the resulting liver disease, and his treatment history.

But the medical staff waited two months to conduct its own tests, according to the complaint, and a full seven months to recommend him for treatment. Then Chief Medical Officer Lester Wright ruled Hilton couldn't start until he took drug addiction classes, even though no previous doctor in or out of the system had suggested it and even though Hilton professed to have not used drugs in 13 years—much of which time he spent passing drug tests as a parolee.

Hilton acquiesced and signed up for the class—only to be put on a lengthy waiting list. He was then transferred to another facility, where counseling staff again tried to enroll him in an addiction class. This time, his enrollment was turned down because he would be eligible for parole before the class finished. "As antiretroviral treatment continues to be denied on the basis of this catch-22," the class action complaint notes, "Mr. Hilton's liver continues to deteriorate."

The state declined to comment on this and other suits it now faces.

In previous suits, the corrections department has offered a reasonable-sounding defense. Hep C treatment is no joke—at least a shot a week and daily pills that can cause depression and flu-like symptoms similar to those of heroin withdrawal. Even the regular needle use can be traumatic for someone kicking an old habit. So the department worries about triggering relapses. And all credible medical guidelines stress that no one who's actively using drugs or alcohol should start treatment without getting sober, lest they fail to complete the regimen.

The stakes are high: If you start and don't finish, your virus will likely mutate, developing the sort of drug resistance we've heard so much about with HIV.

Critics, however, point out that all of the guidelines cited by corrections warn only against treating active users. The concern over relapse is the department's own.

In early November, the prison officials submitted a sweeping policy change to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, asking that a central part of Hilton's case be dismissed based on that change. The new policy removes the drug abuse class requirement but maintains an insistence that inmates have "no evidence of active substance abuse" in the previous six months. Those with evidence of such will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Alexander Rienert, an attorney with Koob & Magoolaghan, which is leading the Hilton class action and has led a number of previous hep C suits, says that's not near good enough. He wants to see a far more detailed portrait of how the system will scale up treatment—and how it will get those it has previously turned away into treatment. "What Dr. Wright is saying is, trust us, you don't have to be involved anymore," scoffs Rienert. "But our experience is, the only time an individual gets treated is when an attorney has stepped in."

Moreover, Rienert says he's already received at least one new complaint from an inmate who has been denied treatment based on his failure to take a drug abuse class.

Milton Zelermyer, a staff attorney with Legal Aid's Prisoners' Rights Project, adds that there remain plenty of ways for corrections to ration treatment. Already, the prisons only test certain inmates for hep C, and as Hammerstein's experience shows, many likely candidates slip through unscreened. But effective hep C screening and treatment also require extensive diagnostics, including regular blood tests and a liver biopsy—just the sort of thing the department delayed for months before denying Hilton based on the drug class rule. So the new policy looks like progress, Zelermyer says, but "how it works in reality is another question."

Prison health advocates say the system's failure to deal adequately with hep C is just the latest disaster to come from letting prison guards control public health. Even as the narrow legal battle over hep C intensifies, advocates are pressing a broader legislative reform. Of course, for activists in Albany, reforms for guys like Rahiem and Hammerstein and Hilton have been the most dead on arrival.

The corrections department's health care challenge is already massive—it runs what amounts to the nation's largest HIV medical practice, for instance. Yet it is exempt from Department of Health oversight because state law considers its facilities more akin to private colleges than public hospitals. The state assembly wants that law changed, but neither the health department nor corrections wants to be part of an arranged marriage; bills calling for it have twice stalled in the senate.

And that leaves dying inmates' futures in the hands of the courts. "There could be something out there for you—whatever medicine, whatever program, whatever doctor you have to see—and they ain't telling," Hammerstein complains, "because the facility don't want to go for the money."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lobby Congress this month: Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act

From the HCV Advocate at the Hepatitis C Support Project:

October 2010 Action Alert

Members of Congress and Senators are back home in this month to campaign for the November elections.

This is an opportunity for hepatitis advocates to meet their legislators and raise awareness about hepatitis and liver cancer in large and small forums across the country.

Attached and below are a few key talking points that you can use when you meet them or have the chance to speak briefly at a larger meeting.

Hepatitis Advocacy Sound Bites- Use these when you meet legislators in passing or have a minute to present in a larger townhall or public meeting.

Hepatitis C virus affects 4 times more people than HIV. Hepatitis B virus affects 2 times as many people in the U.S. However, there are few programs that educate people about the need to be tested and vaccinated.

Hepatitis B, hepatitis C and liver cancer are preventable if we dedicate resources to vaccination and prevention programs.

Liver cancer, mainly caused by chronic hepatitis B and C infection, is the only type of cancer on the rise in the U.S. and is one of the most lethal types of cancer.

There is no federal funding to provide core public health services for viral hepatitis such as hepatitis B and C counseling and testing.

Sixty-five to seventy-five percent of chronically infected people are not aware that they have hepatitis B or C and access to testing is critically needed.

The new Institute of Medicine report, “Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer” recommends increased resources and program expansion to improve hepatitis prevention and care in the US.

ASK- In the brief time you have please consider asking for:

  • Support for hepatitis and liver cancer prevention funding
  • Please co-sponsor the Viral Hepatitis & Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act

Background- HR 3974/S 3711 Viral Hepatitis & Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act

This bill amends the Public Health Service Act to increase hepatitis prevention and control activities. It affects people at risk for and chronically infected with hepatitis B and C by increasing:

  • education for patients and health care providers,
  • access to hepatitis testing and liver cancer screening,
  • the ability of health departments to detect outbreaks, and
  • supporting viral hepatitis prevention and education programs across the U.S..

The gift of life: not valid in Arizona.

Thank God this woman isn't poor and living in Arizona right now...she wouldn't get one transplant, much less three, just because the name of her illness is "Hep C".

-------------------from the Burbank Leader--------------

Transplants give Burbank woman the gift of life

Woman who survived three liver transplants is celebrating with a miracle — the birth of her daughter.

By Joyce Rudolph,
October 6, 2010

Monica O'Brien is celebrating the gift of life.

The 33-year-old Burbank resident has survived three liver transplants and despite the odds, gave birth to a daughter in July.

O'Brien was born with hepatitis C but wasn't diagnosed until after high school, she said.

"I had flu-like symptoms for the first 22 years of my life," she said. "Doctors didn't know why the liver wasn't functioning."

O'Brien was tested for hepatitis C mainly to rule out the illness as she didn't fall into the categories that normally cause it, such as blood transfusions or intravenous drug use.

Her first transplant was a couple of months after her 23rd birthday — 10 years ago. Her aunt Susan Dinovo, her mother's sister, was the donor.

The women recently honored the anniversary of the surgery, Sept. 28, 2000, with Dinovo making a visit to meet O'Brien's newest addition to the family — Meaghan, who was born on July 24.

"I cried — it's just so miraculous that she's here," Dinovo said. "Looking back on what Monica's been through and where she was 10 years ago — what an incredible miracle Meaghan is."

Two specialists told O'Brien that she wouldn't be able to conceive.

"It was definitely a surprise," she said. "We tried for five years and were happily surprised when we were able to."

The smile on her husband, Michael O'Brien, never left his face, she added. They also have a 12-year-old son Charlie, to whom O'Brien gave birth before her surgeries.

During the transplant procedure, between 60% and 70% of Dinovo's liver had been given to O'Brien.

"And both regenerated completely within six weeks, which is totally amazing," O'Brien said.

Three family members were matches for O'Brien, Dinovo said, but the first two didn't work out.

O'Brien had been in the hospital for a while and close to death when Dinovo came for the match test. But Dinovo felt that God was leading her to become the donor.

"From a donor's standpoint, it was more difficult for my husband, John — he was a mess," Dinovo said.
They have five children of their own.

"I told him, you are the one who taught me that 'God first, yourself second, then your spouse,' and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'm being called to do this."

Both came through the surgery fine, but O'Brien suffered a complication from a liver test in 2006. She received an emergency liver transplant, but it was only a bridge. It kept her alive from February to November, and then she received her third liver transplant, she said.

For O'Brien, she got her life back, and now she is an ambassador for the Department of Motor Vehicles, spreading the word for people to become organ donors and have that indicated on their driver's licenses.
"I tell people my stories," O'Brien said. "There is a lack of awareness that transplants are needed for people of all ages and demographics."

Many people think liver transplants happen only to those who suffer from alcoholism, she said, but that's not always the case.

"There is a lot of inaccurate information out there, so I try to set the record straight and give transplantation a face, and help people realize leaving those organs behind can save up to nine lives," O'Brien said. "One person has a lot of power in the gift. It's so amazing."

On Tuesday, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed legislation to create the nation's first living donor registry for kidney transplants and increase organ donation opportunities for Californians, said Bryan Stewart, president of Donate Life California, which administers the state-authorized organ and tissue donor registry.

In California, more than 20,000 patients are waiting for organ transplants, he said. About 80% are awaiting kidney transplants, which has the greatest need due to illnesses like hypertension, high blood pressure and diabetes. About 15% are waiting for a liver and the remaining are waiting for hearts, lungs and pancreas.

"The legislation authorizes the creation of a living donor registry for the state of California, and the goal is to expand the ranks of living donors beyond family members and close friends so strangers can donate to strangers more often," Stewart said.

"Capitol Murder": When the state steals hope from the dying.

It's my understanding that last spring Governor Brewer's and the legislature's bean counters calculated that if they deny AHCCCS coverage for liver transplants, then 17 people on the waiting list will die within the year, saving the state all of about 2.5 million dollars. They probably made that decision with a list of the patients' names on their table. The rest of those waiting for livers will soon follow. Virtually all patients waiting for liver transplants are HCV survivors.

It's sad to say that our government chose to go that route instead of saving the same amount of money by releasing 500 non-violent offenders 6 months early. No one would have to die. Thank legislators Russ Pearce and John Kavanaugh, and Chuck Ryan at the Department of Corrections, for scaring everyone into thinking that ANY early prison releases would jeopardize public safety. In the meantime, sick and vulnerable people are dying in prison at astounding rates this year.

I guess this way, though, the independently wealthy and well-insured will have more livers to choose from once the poor are out of the picture. Frankly, that just makes me want to destroy my organ donor card. 

This policy should be criminal; it sure seems discriminatory and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As long as this legislature is making the laws, though, all but the elite are bound to be screwed - they cut everything from our school budgets to our health care, while protecting their own assets and preserving their own privileged way of life. 

We need to get the people who supported this out of office next month, or spend the next two years fighting and even harder battle with them. Failing that, we may need to just figure out a way to specify that our own organs are donated only to the poor, when the time comes. Then the state can either save our people from an unnecessarily horrible death, or face the wrath of the entire transplant community for letting good organs rot.

------------------From the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable--------------

A controversial new policy by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System depriving hepatitis C patients coverage for liver transplants is effectively a death sentence that, left unchecked, could have far-reaching consequences for millions of Americans afflicted with chronic viral hepatitis, the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable (NVHR) said today.   The new coverage exclusion governing liver transplants took effect Friday as part of broader Medicaid coverage changes made by the state of Arizona in response to budgetary pressures.  

"The Arizona Medicaid program's decision to deprive hepatitis C patients coverage for liver transplants is inhumane and will have devastating consequences for Arizona's Medicaid beneficiaries," said Ms. Lorren Sandt, NVHR Chair and Executive Director of Caring Ambassadors Program, based in Portland, Oregon .  "NVHR recognizes that both public and private health care programs are struggling with the burden of rising costs and a challenging economic environment.  However, the cruel costs associated with Arizona's Medicaid coverage changes do not appear to be based on sound science and far exceed any supposed benefit."

"The standard of care for centers and practitioners is to offer liver transplants to patients with hepatitis C.  All insurance providers – including state Medicaid programs – need to provide coverage for what is the standard of care. With new curative therapies on the horizon, it is imperative not to discriminate against patients with hepatitis C when selecting patients for a liver transplant," said Robert G. Gish, M.D., Co-Director Center for Hepatobiliary Disease and Abdominal Transplantation (CHAT), University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.  
Arizona Medicaid's transplant coverage exclusion is the first of its kind in the nation for hepatitis C patients.  NVHR is deeply troubled that the new Medicaid coverage exclusion inflicts catastrophic consequences that go far beyond any supposed savings.   According to news reports, Arizona faces a budgetary shortfall this year of as much as $825 million.  The entire package of Medicaid benefit changes, including the hepatitis C liver transplant exclusion, is expected to yield about $5 million in savings – or about 1/2 of one percent of the projected budgetary shortfall.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans have been infected with chronic viral hepatitis B or C – and with most unaware of their infection, millions are at risk of developing life-threatening complications, especially African Americans and Asian Americans. Without detection and prompt treatment, chronic viral hepatitis leads to liver cancer, cirrhosis, or liver failure.  

NVHR is a coalition of more than 170 public, private, and voluntary organizations dedicated to reducing the incidence of infection, morbidity, and mortality from chronic viral hepatitis that afflicts more than 5 million Americans.
SOURCE National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable

Terminating harm reduction hope in CALI.

Very disappointing news from This man just condemned countless more people to die unnecessarily from Hep C - and to infect others until they do. I think he's pandering to the conservative communities who don't want to allow needle sales - they don't really seem to care much if a bunch more addicts die...until the one that gets Hep C or HIV from a dirty needle ends up being their kid.

I'd love to set up a needle exchange program in Phoenix. Since Sheriff Joe doesn't run the county health department he really shouldn't get the final word on that. The legislature and Governor will need to support it, though. I'm not sure what it would take to win them over. It won't be easy.

Schwarzenegger also vetoed a bill that the legislature passed unanimously that would have prohibited the shackling of pregnant prisoners - particularly during labor - even those in on non-violent offenses. I don't understand that one at all, except that he has absolutely no concept of what a woman goes through. How are we a threat to public safety when giving birth?

There are far too many ignorant people in power in this nation today.

California Governor Vetoes Needle Access Bill

California Gov. Schwarzenegger could have made syringe sales to adults legal throughout the state in a bid to reduce the transmission of HIV and Hep C. Instead, he chose to extend a program leaving it up to cities and counties. 
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) last Thursday vetoed a bill that would have allowed pharmacies all over California sell syringes to adults without a prescription. The bill was touted by health experts as a key step in reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases.

mobile needle exchange/clinic site, Fresno
The state Department of Public Health estimates that approximately 3,000 California residents contract hepatitis C through syringe sharing every year and another 750 cases of HIV are caused by syringe sharing. Sharing dirty needles is the leading cause of new hepatitis C infections in the state and the second leading cause of new HIV infections.

"When I signed legislation my first year in office allowing for a pilot program to allow the sale of syringes through participating counties and registered pharmacies, I was seeking to balance the competing public health, law enforcement and local control issues that this issue requires," the governor wrote in his veto message [8]. "I believe this balance was achieved and SB 1029 [9] would remove the ability of local officials to best determine policies in their jurisdiction. Some counties have not sought to implement this pilot program, citing competing priorities, lack of pharmacy interest and law enforcement opposition. I respect these local decisions and while I appreciate the author’s hard work and dedication to this issue, I cannot sign this bill," Schwarzenegger wrote.

Instead, Schwarzenegger signed AB 1701 [10], which extends the existing Disease Prevention Demonstration Project for another eight years. That gives cities and counties the option of opting out of the program and not allowing syringe sales without a prescription.

The veto angered SB 1029 author Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who in a statement last Friday said Schwarzenegger apparently "was not interested in an effective public health measure that would reduce health care costs to taxpayers. Not only did he ignore the recommendation of doctors and other health experts, but he ignored the fact that HIV-AIDS and hepatitis do not recognize county borders. Such epidemics are certain to continue without implementing these comprehensive strategies."

SB 1029's approach "has been evaluated extensively throughout the world and has been found to significantly reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis without contributing to any increase in drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes," Yee continued. "In fact, there is not one credible study that refutes these findings. The governor’s veto is a moral and fiscal dilemma."

The veto was "tragic and infuriating," said Laura Thomas of the Drug Policy Alliance [11], which supported Yee's bill. "It is an irrational attachment to drug war hysteria, at the expense of human life and fiscal responsibility to the California taxpayer," she said. "Nothing would have worked better and cost less in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C than SB 1029."

The Brain and Hepatitis C.

--------------------Troubling news from UK News On-line----------------

Hepatitis C Can Damage Brain Cells, According to Recent Canadian Study

A recent Canadian study has been able to prove that the hepatitis C virus can injure and inflame brain cells, which can lead to neurological problems for patients living with the chronic disease.

Chris Power, the Canada Research Chair in Neurological Infection and Immunity with the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta, Canada, performed the current study in an attempt at confirming the previously suggested theory that the hepatitis C virus could penetrate the blood-brain barrier, something that is normally very difficult for any virus or infection to do.

The findings suggest that 13 per cent of patients with hepatitis C, which affects 300,000 people in Canada alone, also suffer from neurological problems. Power and his team conducted experiments on human cadavers: “We saw the virus in the brain of a deceased patient who had hepatitis C,” said Powers about the results.

“For a long time, the medical community has recognized some people who have hepatitis C also have memory loss and poor concentration, which is very disabling for those patients,” said Power and explained that the discovery lead to three new and major finding; the hepatitis had damaged those neurons in the brain that are responsible for motor functions, memory and concentration. They also found that the virus also triggered an inflammation of the brain, which in turn lead to more neurons being damaged. Lastly, they discovered that the virus stopped the process of autophagy, which is a natural process the brain undergoes to rid itself of unwanted toxic proteins. As a result, large amounts of toxic proteins were accumulating in the brain causing more damage to the brain cells.

Power added: “Now we have some understanding about the cause of these neurological symptoms that can lead to the development of future treatments for people with hepatitis C.

“This discovery is significant because this is the first time anyone has confirmed that the hepatitis C virus can infect and injure brain cells.”.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Liberty and Justice for All: AZ Freedom March 2010.

Staggering into the morning from a two-week period of fevers, fatigue, and altered consciousness - punctuated by the grief of traumatized families - I found myself at the Freedom March for the Wrongfully Convicted on the State House lawn Saturday. It was organized by Camille Tilley, Courtney Bisbee's mom. As detailed by Stephen Lemons in the Phoenix New Times, Courtney was a school nurse and single mom when she was falsely accused of touching a teenage boy and sentenced to 11 years in prison as a child molester. Sensationalized by the press, Courtney was convicted and condemned before she even went to trial.

Camille and Tom Tilley, 2008.

Now, six or seven years later, Courtney's still fighting for her child and her freedom from behind bars. The evidence exonerating her has been in the hands of the Maricopa County Att
orney's office for over 4 years now. Andrew Thomas just sat on it. We're waiting to see if Rick Romley picks her file up before he goes. He had the courage to drop capital murder charges against Lisa Randall, the babysitter the county worked two years on prosecuting for the death of a child who was in her care, so we're hopeful.

Camille is an extraordinary woman. She sees the bigger picture - the contexts in which her family has been repeatedly victimized by agents of the state - and goes after every piece of it she can get her teeth into: not just abuses of prosecutorial discretion, but also minimum mandatory sentencing, police brutality, conditions of confinement and medical neglect in the prisons, racial profiling, and early release provisions for non-violent offenders. The devastating events of recent weeks, the rapid rise in the prisoner death toll, and the timing of the Freedom March this year brought a new constituency under her wing: the families of people prosecuted for the symptoms of their mental illnesses.

I've spent much of my adult life studying crime, punishment, and serious mental illness in an effort to keep my own loved one out of prison. I successfully convinced a handful of judges and prosecutors across the country to drop charges against him drawing on my research into the trans-institutionalization of the mentally ill, particularly those dually diagnosed with psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. I kept a few of my homeless clients out of jail that way, too. My experience has been that most people working in the criminal justice system agree that most of the seriously mentally ill whose lives are being chewed up there don't belong in jail or prison, they need housing, community support services and access to psychiatric hospitals. Instead, unfortunately, the seriously mentally ill are three times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized.

Shannon Palmer is one of the most stark examples of the damage done to a person's life by wrongful prosecution and incarceration that I've ever seen, but "justice" destroys innocent lives every day. According to Camille's research (based, I believe, on exonerations in death penalty cases), up to 10% of people in prison may be wrongfully convicted; factually innocent. If you look at prosecutions such as Shannon's, sentences of imprisonment for women like Lasasha Cherry, and Tony Lester's prosecution and sentence, then the number of people we have in prison who really shouldn't be there increases dramatically.

As of August 2010, the Arizona Department of Corrections estimates than about 9,362 of
their 40,204 prisoners - about 25% - need on-going mental health treatment. Many of those individuals were too incompetent to stand trial or even to plead guilty when first arraigned - how can we then hold them fully culpable for criminal intent and send them to prison? They also estimate that 75% of offenders enter the system with major substance abuse issues. It's a serious and common error to believe that the mentally ill and addicted are getting the treatment they need in a safe environment when incarcerated. They are the most vulnerable to trauma, abuse and exploitation, which most have endured enough of already.

Most of us fail to appreciate the huge chunk we take out of people's lives when we criminalize and incarcerate them, and what lasting repercussions there are. We take it for granted that our system is just. American justice is not designed to expedite the exoneration and liberation of the innocent or even to equalize the punishment of the guilty. Once you plead guilty or are convicted, it's damn near impossible to get out through the appeals system, and no matter how innocent you are, it's all too easy to be violated on probation or parole - Arizona couldn't keep the prisons full otherwise.

There are people still trying to clear their names who have long since done their time - time they never should have had to do. Many have lost their careers, homes and families in the process of being branded a criminal. And some, like Shannon Palmer and Tony Lester, have lost their lives to our way of dealing with crime and doling out punishment.

What really astonished me - everyone, perhaps - at Saturday's Freedom March was how well one of our state legislators, Cecil Ash, articulated all that and more. Representative Ash is the chair of the House Study Committee on Sentencing Reform and Co-Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He not only spoke to the issues we've been dealing with, he sat and listened to every single story, in 100 degree heat, until 2:15 in the afternoon. He even took notes as families were talking about their experiences. And as far as I could tell, of all our state lawmakers, he was the only one to bother to come.

AZ Representative Cecil Ash,
Freedom March Phoenix, 2010.

You could tell by the way he talked about his letters from Arizona's prisoners that Representative Ash not only reads them, he's sincerely troubled by their predicaments and has been thinking about solutions. We incarcerate far too many non-violent offenders, and he wants to reduce time served before parole eligibility for some from 85% of their sentence to 65% of their sentence. He wants to rewrite some of the minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines to give judges more flexibility when they encounter defendants in exceptional circumstances.

Because of Brewer and Bill Macumber, Ash also wants a constitutional change to remove the power of clemency from the hands of the governor and invest it solely in a non-partisan board. And he wants to see prison reform so that people aren't needlessly suffering and dying while serving their time, regardless of their crime (or lack of one).
Those are just a few of the changes he touched on wanting to raise the next legislative session.

Julie Acklin, Freedom March 2010, Phoenix.

While Representative Ash is our knight in shining armor, he wasn't the star of the show. The stars were the ordinary citizens who stood up to tell their stories and share their grief. Julie Acklin talked about her son Davon, sick in prison with Hep C and not getting treatment. She hopes his fight brings relief to all prisoners infected with HCV. We're planning to hit the lawn at CASS shelter this week to collect signature for the petition to the clemency board and educate people about Hep C.

Patti Jones brought nephew Tony Lester's daughter, just turning 1 that day, and told of his love for his family, the torment of his first psychotic break, his prosecution in the wake of a suicide attempt, and his death after being taken off his meds just a few weeks into a devastating 12-year prison term. Probably 20 of his relatives were there wearing t-shirts in his memory; they converted a table into a memorial with pictures and balloons. Patti pledged to organize with other families to push sentencing and prison reform to prevent what happened to Tony, trading numbers with Julie.

one of Tony Lester's little loved ones.

Other individuals and family members spoke eloquently and passionately about their disillusioning experiences with the criminal justice system in Arizona as well. There was considerable emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences and enhancements, abusive prosecution and the coercion involved in plea bargaining, and the non-incarceration consequences of being criminalized - including stigma, child custody issues, and the challenges that probation and parole stipulations present even to innocent people.

Allison Hicks ("Backspin") talked about her time in the Maricopa County Jail and her ordeal with wrongful prosecution, about which she has written and will soon have a movie. The Arizona Death Penalty Forum gave a brief presentation, and some of Jim Rix' books, Jingle Jangle, about AZ death row exoneree Ray Krone were on hand. Daniel Horne was with us in spirit - his books about Maricopa County corruption were distributed, and he sent an extensive handout for folks, which I hope to touch on in another post.

We also celebrated the success of our extensive efforts to get Andrew Thomas out of the Maricopa County Attorney's office and keep him from becoming AZ attorney general. He was huge obstruction of justice there. According to Camille, his office convicted over 200,000 people during his tenure. If 10% of them are innocent, that's a long trail of beaten families and damaged lives he left in his wake, with no sign of remorse or concern. We will be expecting more out of Mr. Montgomery - who is reportedly sympathetic towards people with mental illness - assuming he takes office after Romley's term expires. Hopefully Arizonans will never again have to tolerate someone like Andrew Thomas in a position of such power again.

Thanks, Camille, for all you did to put together the day - and for all you do year round for prisoners and their families.

And thank you, Representative Ash. You give us hope that our government is not completely lost, and that our loved ones have not been permanently discarded.