The ACLU is investigating the Allegheny County Jail for failing to provide HIV medications to inmates in "a timely and consistent way."
"We have been investigating this for the last three months,” says state ACLU legal director Vic Walczak. "What we’re hearing is that pretty much every prisoner with HIV/AIDS has encountered these problems."
The problems, says Walczak, include failures to: provide HIV medications consistently; conduct HIV testing among prisoners; do regular blood work to check the viral loads
of those who are already infected; provide a certain amount of medication upon release; and provide "pre-release counseling" on managing the disease.
“It’s a potential public safety disaster – and it’s not just inside the jail. They’re going to get released into the community,” Walczak says, adding that missing doses can have "life-threatening" consequences for inmates and others who may contract the virus.
Walczak and others have met with the county, but Walczak would not comment on what remedies, if any, the county would agree to. If the situation doesn't change, he warns, “the ACLU will do what the ACLU often does.”
Amie Downs, the county's director of communications, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The county contracts for about $11.5 million per year with Corizon Health, a Tennessee-based company, to provide health care for the jail. Corizon
has been regularly criticized
for failing to provide medically necessary medications to patients. An inmate died
earlier this year;
his lawyer said the jail did not provide medication for his epilepsy.
The ACLU's claim about inconsistent HIV/AIDS care "certainly doesn't surprise me," says Allegheny Controller Chelsa Wagner, who conducted an audit
that concluded in part that the company was not providing basic clinical services
. Wagner says she was unaware of the HIV medication issue, but “It’s very clear to me that their failure to comply with the contract and to meet inmate health needs is because of their for-profit motive, which is completely at odds with what is needed in the jail or any sort of public setting.”
Calls to Warden Orlando Harper and Corizon were not immediately returned.
The average population of the jail typically fluctuates between 2,900 and 3,100 people, according to a 2014 report, though Walczak estimates there are probably less than 30 people who know they are HIV positive in the jail.
“I think the problems afflicting the HIV community in the jail are similar to the other patients. The reason we chose to focus on HIV is the treatment protocols are clear and the dangers from a failure to follow them are substantial, even life-threatening.”
Editor's note: This post has been clarified to reflect that Amie Downs' official title is director of communications for the county, not spokesperson for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.