PHOENIX — Since executions were put on hold by a federal judge in 2014, five Arizona death-row inmates have died of “natural causes.” All of them were related to hepatitis C infections, according to attorneys and relatives of the dead prisoners.
The medical director at the Arizona prison complex that until last year housed the majority of death row inmates recently testified that up to 80% of inmates in that complex were infected with the disease.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne viral infection that mostly affects the liver, causing cirrhosis, or hardening of the liver, and cancer. It can complicate other maladies such as kidney disease and diabetes.
Once incurable, it now can be effectively treated with expensive antiviral medication. It is mostly contracted by sharing needles among drug users but also can be spread by sex, infected piercing or tattoo needles, or by sharing razors and toothbrushes.
If left untreated and it progresses to cirrhosis, it can kill a person outright, cause liver cancer and kidney failure, and hamper the immune system to a point where it cannot fight off common bacterial infections, according to Dr. Rena Fox, a San Francisco-based physician who has studied hepatitis C in prison populations.
The most recent Arizona Death Row inmate to die was Brian Dann on March 1. Dann sued the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections last year to be treated with antiviral drugs.
In his handwritten complaint, Dann wrote “Plaintiff has suffered documented irreparable damage to his liver, with corresponding, severe joint pain, debilitating fatigue and cognitive/physical impairment that curb (sic) daily function. Without prompt treatment, these symptoms will exponentially progress in an imminently premature death.”