P, who contacted us whilst serving a sentence in prison, sent in this moving letter to share his experience of both contracting and being diagnosed with Hepatitis C in prison …
I was diagnosed with Hep C in prison in late 2005. I was 38 and had worked as a Drug and Alcohol counsellor after having beaten my addiction of 12 years to heroin but unfortunately an old charge of dishonesty caught up with me and I was returned to prison. During that sentence my mental health took a nose dive and by the time I was released in 2004 I was in a bad way and had started self-medicating. I was arrested again and sent back to prison and for about a year I relapsed into using opiates.
Getting new needles had been easy on the out and I had always been careful, but in here there is no needle exchange so I was smoking or snorting - but not getting the same effect. One of the inmates on my wing was diabetic and he used to get these pen syringes which you could break down into a do it yourself syringe. He also had several new ends (pins) so I thought as long as I keep my own pin I will be fine. I used to borrow the barrel and plunger and wash it out using boiling water and use alcohol swabs from the Healthcare Unit.
I didn’t know at the time that I wasn’t the only one using this thing. I found out later about another seven cons were using it at different times of the day. This was a real wake up call for me and I immediately stopped using it and dumped my own pins. It was at this point I realised I’d had enough. I knew I had to stop using and I was a mess. Although I’d only been on the pin syringe for four months, I had track marks on my arms and looked terrible, so I confided in a nurse at the prison and he said if I wanted to stop they would support me. I was put on a 28 day detox programme and although it was hard I stuck with it.
Once I was clean I decided to have all the various blood tests done. My last set of tests had been done in 2001 and I’d been alright and nothing had come back positive. Although I’d used drugs since that period, I had only used shared equipment during that four months inside. This time I was told I had Hep C antibodies. A further test confirmed I had the virus and I was told I had genotype 1.
I like to think that even with my many faults I am still a good person at heart and have a conscience, so I went and spoke to all the cons who were still using the kit and told them I’d had a Hep C test and that it had come back as positive and that they really needed to stop sharing the works and get tested. The response I got was threatening. I was told that if any of them had got it, then it would be down to me. I tried to reason with them saying that one of the group must have had it for a while and knowingly or not, put us all at risk, but they wouldn’t listen and from then on I was stigmatised and isolated. None of them went for testing and worst of all they kept on using the same syringes and sharing with more inmates.
The going rate in this prison for a new syringe is £30 and for a second hand one is £10. People are convinced that if they boil the syringe in a kettle it will be fine. This ignorance is unbelievable to the point of ludicrous but it is true that for many addicts it’s not worries about whether it’s sterilised, I’ts about the next hit and to hell with the consequences.
To my reckoning I know of forty people who use and share needles in this prison and there will be some more that I don’t know. There are around 800 people in this prison so it’s not hard to do the maths. What’s worse is that there are other ways of contracting it in here. On each wing we have one pair of head hair shears that are used every night and you can guarantee that one in two end up with a nick on the scalp, and some of those draw blood.
Now I know a lot of people will think “They’re in prison and they’re only junkies, so what”… Well, we’re all still human and this disease doesn’t care what type of background you come from and what about the cons that don’t use drugs but get their hair cut regularly and now they’re infected as well? Prison is a breeding ground for hep C and unless action is taken quickly this problem is going to escalate even more rapidly than it has already. Let’s not forget prisoners do get out at some point and if they are not even aware they have it then god knows who else they are putting at risk.
I myself am due for release in 2007 and am looking to start treatment soon after. I read Anita Roddick’s story which moved me a lot and I got wonderful support from the Hepatitis C Trust, when I was diagnosed, and they sent me lots of information which helped. Anita Roddick asked “what about the prisons?”…well this has been my story.
Lastly I got the feeling that the prisons don’t want to face up to the amount of prisoners who are infected with hep C. They wouldn’t let me start treatment whilst inside. Even though I will be out soon I still have more hurdles to get over. I will be homeless on release and until I can get accommodation, I can’t start treatment. Sometimes it’s hard to stay positive, but I’m only 38 and I’ve wasted a lot of my life already and I don’t intend on wasting anymore. I just hope somewhere along the line I get a break.