There is a lot of media hype in the US over the super bug that spreads silently and stealthily and the staph mutation is resistant to all but the most rare and expensive antibiotics. As many as 19,000 deaths were reported in 2005.
But not many seem to be concerned with the squalid prison conditions which could be one big breeding ground for the germ.
AdvertisementOf course not just prisons, but all facilities where the superbug thrives and spreads the fastest: poorly ventilated living and sleeping quarters; overcrowded rooms; shared mattresses, toilets and showers; and a preponderance of people who arrive with poor health, drug problems and severely compromised immune systems should all be in the radar of the health authorities.
Writing in the radical website www.alternet.org, Silja J.A. Talvi recalls her visit to women's prison in New Mexico a couple of years ago and says, "The prison, run since the early 1980s by the Corrections Corporation of America, had a veritable epidemic on their hands, something that even some staff admitted to me under the condition that I not publish their names. Many women called me over to so that I could witness the jarring sight of large, oozing, open sores, usually on their upper legs. None of the women with whom I spoke were receiving medical treatment; all had been told that their sores were the result of insect bites or their own unwillingness to stay clean. The women complained, in hushed tones, that the prison had yet to put an emphasis on providing enough soap and sanitary conditions to stem the spread of the bacteria."
Even having access to soap isn't a guarantee of being able to wash one's hands to get rid of surface germs, because the tap water made available to prisoners is often lukewarm or cold. The same is true for the availability of bleach to clean showers, toilets, as well as antiseptic cleanser for shared gym equipment. Antibacterial hand cleansers are so rare in prisons and jails as to be notable when they are available.
In Washington state prisons, prominent signs have been placed to warn correctional employees and visitors alike of the dangers of MRSA infection in the facilities, yet prisoners must grow accustomed to lack of soap, hot water, and unclean showers and other shared areas. (Worse yet, the possession of unauthorized, "contraband" antibacterial gel or antiseptic hand wipes is actually a punishable offense!)
In most jails and prisons, topical salves, gauze and bandages are rarely provided to prisoners with boils or sores that could well indicate MRSA infections. Many jail and prison employees are overworked and delay and deny prisoner requests to be seen and treated for even the most obvious health problems. Medical co-pays of $5 to $10 are yet another common barrier, because many prisoners simply don't have the means to afford what might seem to be a nominal amount in the "free world." Add to all of this the endless recycling of prison mattresses and poorly cleaned bedding and clothing, and it's easy to see why jail and prison environments are ripe for the spread of MRSA.
States known to have particularly serious outbreaks of MRSA in detention facilities include Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio and California. (The latter lays claim to unbearably overcrowded jails and prisons in which two-person cells are sometimes packed with eight people and in which dayrooms or gyms have been converted into a crazy jumble of bunk bed "housing" areas.)
There was this terrible case of a nurse in the Calhoun County Jail in Michigan who acquired MRSA from two prisoners who both died within the space of 13 hours. One of those prisoners had sneezed on the nurse in March 2005, and she developed such severe complications from the ensuing infection that part of her foot was amputated. In West Palm Beach, Florida, an assistant public defender almost lost an arm to MRSA when he contracted the disease from a client in a severely overcrowded, unsanitary jail in which 200 prisoners contracted the superbug within just a three-month span in early 2004.
From 2005 to 2006, the nonpartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons looked at a multitude of issues and crises facing the American prison system, including the prevalence of untreated infectious diseases. The resulting June 2006 report, "Confronting Confinement," strongly recommended that prison and jail systems should join public health providers in "the common project of delivering high-quality healthcare that protects prisoners and the public."
The commission went further to insist that every detention facility in the United States should "screen, test and treat for infectious diseases under the oversight of public health authorities ... and ensure continuity of care upon release."
The way in which the MRSA superbug in prisons continues to be treated (or untreated, as is usually the case) is a direct and ugly consequence of the dehumanization of men, women and youth locked away from our collective consciousness. Indeed, a "don't ask, don't tell" approach toward the deadly MRSA infection among our captive populations is ignorant and baffling at best, callous and sadistic at worst, notes Silja Talvi pungently.