Department of Health Given Oversight Over Policies Affecting Treatment of Prisoners With HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C

Ten years of legislative advocacy by the Prisoners’ Rights Project has finally borne fruit. On September 16th, recognizing the link between prison health and public health, Governor Paterson signed the Department of Health (DOH) Oversight Law, giving DOH the authority and responsibility to monitor policies and practices of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), and local correctional facilities, affecting treatment of prisoners with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, two infectious diseases with significant prevalence in this State’s prison and jail population (A.903/S.3842; L. 2009 c. 419).

PRP staff—former supervisor Jack Beck and staff attorney Milton Zelermyer—lobbied in favor of this proposal over the past ten years, and Zelermyer was involved in the initial drafting of the bill. The bill had passed in the Assembly several times, only to die in the Senate. Finally, with the leadership and support of Assemblymen Dick Gottfried and Jeff Aubry and Senators Tom Duane and Ruth Hassel-Thompson, it passed in both houses this year. Legal Aid, among several other organizations with which it had joined in coalition, urged the governor to approve it.

DOCS policies have led to the denial of treatment for Hepatitis C, and there has been a great deal of litigation aimed that problem. PRP brought a class action in 1990 on behalf of all HIV positive New York State prisoners, seeking to improve the quality of and access to medical care. A settlement in 2007 achieved needed improvements in specialty care, health staff training, and quality assurance. The oversight legislation takes a big step toward reducing the need for litigation to remedy problems in correctional health care. Placing DOCS under scrutiny by DOH will bring DOCS more into line with other institutions, since DOH already had regulatory power over virtually every other provider of health services in New York.

The Legal Aid Society is grateful to the Governor, the legislators, and the advocates, both inside and outside the prison walls, who have stuck with this issue and brought about a dramatic mandate for review, assessment, and modification of the delivery of health care services in correctional facilities. We look forward to full implementation of the bill’s provisions.