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.
Official Arizona Department of Corrections statistics paint a less dire picture.
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.”
Dann got the drug treatment, but his liver was so badly damaged that he needed a bypass operation to allow blood to flow past his liver. He died on the operating table.
The disease has become a problem nationwide. A 2016 study by faculty at Yale and Harvard universities stated that 10% of inmates in state prisons have hepatitis C. The study also stated that a 12-week course of drugs to treat the infection can cost from $43,000 to $94,500.
Infection rampant in prison population
Dr. Rodney Stewart, who works for Corizon Correctional Healthcare, the health management company that provides care in Arizona prisons, testified March 14 in a U.S. District Court hearing over Arizona prison health care.
He told the court that 2,700 of the 5,000 inmates at the department’s Eyman Complex suffered from chronic illnesses,especially hepatitis C.
Eyman is a maximum-security complex that housed the state's death row prisoners until last year. The most dangerous death-row inmates and many who are handicapped remain in Eyman.
On direct questioning by Magistrate Judge David Duncan, Stewart also estimated that 80% of the Eyman inmates are infected with hepatitis C.
Corrections Department reports, on the other hand, say 6,243 of the 41,681 prisoners in the entire Arizona Department of Corrections population have hepatitis C, which comes to 15%.
The corrections department did not provide specific figures for Eyman.
"I doubt that was well-collected data," Fox said of the 80% estimate.
"Generally (in prison populations), it's in the 30(%) to 40% range, which is staggeringly high," Fox said, pointing out that the incidence in the general population is about 1.6%.
Fox said, "Most inmates who have hep C are not contracting it in prison, they came in with it," because of a proclivity for drug use.
A spokesman for the corrections department said, “The department treats Hepatitis C inmates pursuant to, and consistent with, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) guidelines.”
Those federal guidelines include an "opt-out" provision, meaning that prisoners can voluntarily refuse testing. Then treatment depends on the level of cirrhosis.
Executions on hold in Arizona
Arizona currently has 116 people on death row, according to the Department of Corrections. The state has not executed any death row prisoners since July 2014 because of litigation and the unavailability of suitable drugs to carry them out.
The last person executed in Arizona was Joseph Wood. His execution took nearly two hours because the state was experimenting with a combination of drugs that did not work quickly and effectively. A group of inmates then filed suit in federal court and a U.S. District Court judge shut down all executions until the case was litigated.
Although the case was settled, no further executions have yet been scheduled because the department has so far not obtained either of the two drugs approved for execution in Arizona: sodium thiopental and pentobarbital.
Since then, five death row inmates have died. Information on their deaths comes from attorneys, families and medical records.
• George Lopez died Oct. 12, 2016, of liver cancer, liver and kidney failure and cirrhosis, complications of hepatitis C. Lopez was on death row for killing his infant son in Tucson, Ariz., in 1989.
• Albert Carreon died Sept. 8, 2017, of a strep infection that he could not fight off because his immune system had been compromised by hepatitis C and cirrhosis. He was in prison for killing two people in Chandler, Ariz., in 2001.
• Shawn Lynch died Nov. 4, 2017, of complications from hepatitis C. Lynch was in prison for killing a Scottsdale, Ariz., man in 2001.
• Graham Henry died Feb. 9, 2018, of liver and kidney failure, complications of hepatitis C. Henry murdered a Las Vegas man in Mohave County, Ariz., in 1986.
• Brian Dann died March 1, 2018. Dann was sentenced to death for killing three people in Phoenix in 2001.
In November, Dann was interviewed at death row in Florence, Ariz., for a story on the moving of death row prisoners from solitary confinement to a close custody situation where they could interact with each other.
Dann provided a tour of his cell, and over the door he had pasted a sign that read, “Due to recent budget cuts, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.”
Follow Michael Kiefer on Twitter: @michaelbkiefer