Thursday, December 24th, 1998
Suzy Parker, salon.com
December 24, 1998
Even the residents of Grady, Ark., call it “godforsaken.” It’s an enclave of poverty where rampant drug dealing contributes at least as much to the bleak economy as the main legitimate business — farming — does.
But looming among the rows of cotton outside this dismal Arkansas River Delta town, there used to be a more profitable form of agriculture: human plasma farming. At the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas penal system during the 1980s, while President Clinton was still governor, inmates would regularly cross the prison hospital’s threshold to give blood, lured by the prospect of receiving $7 a pint. The ritual was creepy to behold: platoons of prisoners lying supine on rows of cots, waiting for the needle-wielding prison orderly to puncture a vein and watch the clear bags fill with blood. Administrators then sold the blood to brokers, who in turn shipped it to other states, and to Japan, Italy, Spain and Canada. Despite repeated warnings from the Food and Drug Administration, Arkansas kept its prison plasma program running until 1994, when it became the very last state to cease selling its prisoners’ plasma.
In a year when Arkansas scandals dating back to his governorship have returned to haunt Clinton, this one nearly toppled the government — of Canada. Arkansas’ prison-blood business created a health crisis in Canada that nearly brought down the Liberal Party government last spring. At least 42,000 Canadians have been infected with hepatitis C, and thousands more with the HIV virus, thanks to poorly screened plasma. Some of it has been traced back to the Cummins prison in Arkansas. More than 7,000 Canadians are expected to die as a result of the blood scandal.
The Canadian Krever Commission, established in 1993 to investigate the tainted-blood epidemic, concluded the government did not adequately supervise the Red Cross of Canada, the agency responsible for making sure that blood suppliers maintained adequate screening standards. As a result of the scandal, the Red Cross has been stripped of responsibility for the blood system. Compensation was offered to 1,000 people with AIDS, but the Toronto Star estimates nearly 2,000 are suffering. More than 20,000 tainted-blood victims with hepatitis C filed a class-action suit against the Canadian government, alleging that sloppy screening protocols allowed tainted blood products from Arkansas prisons and elsewhere to make their way into Canada. Last week the Canadian government established a $1.1 billion (Canadian) fund to compensate some hepatitis C victims, but advocates say the fund won’t be enough.
Former Arkansas inmates who claim they contracted hepatitis C and AIDS as a result of improper procedures are also planning to bring a lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Health Management Associates Inc. (HMA), Pine Bluff Biologicals — the two companies that held the prison’s plasma contracts — the state of Arkansas, Clinton and his administration at the time. The White House did not return calls seeking comment on the lawsuits.
The scandals have received little media attention here, but they tainted Clinton’s years as governor. Some newspaper columnists at the time said it could jeopardize his reelection. Two longtime friends of Clinton’s were embroiled in the mess: Leonard Dunn, a former Pine Bluff banker and now chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, served as HMA’s president; and Richard Mays, a Little Rock lawyer, judge and Clinton ally, was hired in 1985 as an “ombudsman,” an ill-defined position that was supposedly created to help bring the prison medical system into compliance with state standards. The exact payment Mays received, or what his duties were, was never established, and became the subject of a state police investigation because of allegations that it was actually a “bribe” paid to a Clinton supporter to allow the program to continue.
Problems with the prison plasma program were well known to Clinton throughout the 1980s. The FDA cited HMA for safety deficiencies and shut it down for over a year in 1983, following a recall of hepatitis B-tainted products that had been shipped to Canada and distributed to hemophiliacs. In 1984, the FDA revoked the center’s license to operate, and in 1985, an inmate filed a lawsuit against HMA for inadequate medical care. In 1986, Clinton’s state police investigated problems at the prison and found little cause for concern, while an outside investigator looked at the same allegations and found dozens of safety violations.
Now, more than a decade later, those old Arkansas scandals are getting new attention, thanks to lawsuits and agitation in Canada.
In 1983, the FDA initiated an international recall of plasma that might have been tainted with hepatitis B, which can also be an indicator of HIV infection. Several prisoners who had previously tested positive for hepatitis B were allowed to donate blood at Cummins, and the tainted units had been sold by HMA to Cryosan. Cryosan in turn sold the plasma to corporations in Switzerland, Spain, Japan and Italy, as well as to Toronto-based Connaught Laboratories, which pooled the plasma with other blood products needed by hemophiliacs to make their blood clot, and sold the blood throughout Canada.
It was only then, during the crisis over the recall, that the Canadians learned they were buying plasma collected from prison inmates. “The shipping papers accompanying the plasma had not revealed that the centre was located in a prison,” the Krever commission report revealed. “They had simply referred to the source as the ‘ADC Plasma Center, Grady, Arkansas,’ without any indication that ‘ADC’ stood for ‘Arkansas Department of Corrections.’”