In March 1991, Times reporter Mara Leveritt revealed the Arkansas Department of Correction's dirty little secret: inmate plasma sales.
After passing a few blood tests, prisoners were paid $7 per visit to lie in one of the ADC's two gymnasium-sized plasmapheresis centers and bleed out their valuable plasma. Since inmates are not paid for their prison jobs, plasma was the only legal way for them to make money to spend on extras like toiletries. The program was a small windfall for the department as well, helping the ADC retain one of the lowest average inmate-cost-per-day figures in the nation.
By 1991, Arkansas was the last state selling plasma from its prison population. The market for prisoner plasma - largely hemophiliacs needing its clotting factor - was drying up in the United States, thanks to warnings by the National Hemophilia Foundation and the federal Food and Drug Administration that the blood, coming from a population that included a high percentage of intravenous drug users and people with a proclivity for high-risk sexual contact, was likely unsafe.
Still, the ADC kept on tapping veins. Stopping the program - and its flow of needed cash to prisoners - would lead to prostitution and crime in the prison walls, inmates warned. Besides, the ADC insisted, prisoner plasma was as safe as that gathered from the general public, maybe even safer. "We have complete medical histories on every one of these people," said John Byus, the ADC's medical director. "Even the Red Cross can't say that. And we do a complete screening every time an individual goes in to donate."
Such official assurances hadn't done much to boost confidence. Nevada and Louisiana had stopped their plasma operations in 1990, and with U.S. markets all but closed, the Arkansas Department of Corrections actively sought customers from abroad, working through international brokers to sell plasma in Europe, South America and Asia. "We plan to stick with it to the last day," said John Byus. "To the last drop we're able to sell."
The last drop came in 1994, but not before the tragedy groups like the Hemophilia Foundation had warned of came to pass. By the time the ADC stabbed its last, tens of thousands of hemophiliacs around the globe had learned they were infected with hepatitis and AIDS. Subsequent panels and commissions worldwide would lay the blame on prison plasma, specifically that produced by the ADC, where shoddy record keeping and testing allowed infected prisoners to give blood that was then pooled with non-infected donations, tainting world supplies. Particularly hard-hit was Canada, which served as the distribution point for more than 4,800 questionable units of plasma from Arkansas and Louisiana prisons in the 1980s. Canada's 1993 Krever Inquiry found in one case that 38 units of plasma infected with hepatitis C were shipped from Cummins Prison to a lab in Montreal, eventually finding their way into the veins of hemophiliacs in Canada, Switzerland, Spain, Japan and Italy. Other infected lots, a subsequent investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police revealed, were shipped to France, China, England, Morocco, Israel, Portugal, Argentina, Germany and Greece. Eventually, the Krever inquiry found that the Canadian Red Cross hadn't adequately monitored the country's blood supply, and the group was eventually relieved from that long-held duty.
The Canadian government eventually set aside $1.2 billion for those infected with hepatitis C by tainted blood, and in 1999, a group of Canadian hemophiliacs filed a $660 million lawsuit against the companies that distributed the tainted plasma in Canada. A criminal investigation into the tainted blood scandal is ongoing in that country.
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