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Death sentence?

Virginia inmate files federal class action lawsuit to make Hepatitis C treatment available to prisoners

Jeremy Lazarus | 7/14/2017, 6:33 a.m.
Terry A. Riggleman went to prison as a convicted robber. But 11 years into his 20-year sentence, he is working ...
King Salim Khalfani, Richmond managing director for Americans Resisting Minority and Ethnic Discrimination, commends the lawsuit seeking to overturn a state policy of withholding Hepatitis C medicine from inmates. Looking on, from left, are: Michael Donovan, Nexus Services president and CEO, whose company is funding the lawsuit; the Rev. Frank Jackson, managing director of ARMED’s Chicago office; and Mario Williams, lead attorney with Nexus Caridades Attorneys that is representing inmates in the suit.

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

Terry A. Riggleman went to prison as a convicted robber.

But 11 years into his 20-year sentence, he is working to change an alleged state practice of withholding life-saving medicine from Virginia prison inmates like him who are afflicted with the liver-destroying viral infection known as Hepatitis C.

Backed by a new pro-bono civil rights law firm, Nexus Caridades Attorneys Inc., Mr. Riggleman, 42, at Augusta Correctional Center has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections seeking to overturn current policy and make treatment available.

“Defendants have a constitutional mandate to treat Mr. Riggleman’s infection,” the suit states, “but instead of curing Hepatitis C, defendants have permitted Mr. Riggleman and other inmates to be infected — without treatment — until they reach their deathbed.”

The suit represents a major embarrassment for the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, which has pushed continually against General Assembly opposition to expand health insurance to low-income Virginians but is now accused of withholding treatment for one of the state’s poorest groups — prisoners.

The governor’s office has not responded to a request for comment on the suit. It alleges the state policy amounts to a bureaucratically imposed death sentence for the untold number of inmates with Hepatitis C.

The case could become a potential budget-buster if Mr. Riggleman prevails in the suit filed June 26 in Harrisonburg in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

According to Mario Williams, lead attorney for Nexus Caridades, which is based in Augusta County, 30 percent to 40 percent of inmates are believed to be infected with Hepatitis C. That’s an estimated 10,000 of the 30,000 men and women locked up in state facilities, making it one of the most widespread diseases in the prisons.

New medications have been developed since Mr. Riggleman was first diagnosed with the chronic disease in 2005, but they are hugely expensive. A 12-week course of medication costs a minimum of $50,000 per person, according to the drug manufacturer.

Virginia would need to spend $500 million or more should the federal court find the state has violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by withholding such medicines as Mr. Riggleman’s suit alleges.

The suit names Harold Clarke, director of the state Corrections Department, and Dr. Mark Amonette, the corrections department’s chief medical officer.

Both men, who are represented legally through the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, are keeping mum about the suit.

“Any response on behalf of our clients will be made in court filings,” a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring stated.

Mr. Riggleman suffers excruciating stomach, nerve, joint and liver pain, as well as constant fatigue from the disease. He turned to Nexus Caridades after his requests for treatment were rebuffed in November and March.

Despite his symptoms, the state Corrections Department notified him that his disease had not progressed far enough to justify treatment. Medical staff also were instructed not to treat him or others with the disease, the suit states.