The Alabama state Department of Corrections announced earlier this month that it is ending its practice of segregating HIV-positive prisoners.
The prison service announced at the beginning of September that it has now ended the segregation of eight HIV-positive inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, with the separating of male prisoners to end at the beginning of next year.
This change comes after a group of 10 HIV-positive prisoners sued in 2011. They contended that their being forcibly tested upon entering the prison and then segregated into special dormitories at two prisons, one for male prisoners and one for female inmates, based on their HIV status amounted to a violation of the the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is thought that there are roughly 250 HIV-positive inmates among the state’s 26,400 prisoner population.
The violations of rights this practice created are diverse, but the lawsuit centered on key areas of prisoner rehabilitation including preventing HIV-positive prisoners from accessing work programs and educational opportunities because they are restricted from traveling to other prisons, and being barred from certain in-house jobs and opportunities.
The suit also noted a particularly hostile environment for HIV-positive inmates with mental health or substance abuse problems who, as a result of their isolation, were prevented from accessing the full range of rehabilitation and medical care options open to other prisoners.
Every HIV-positive prisoner was also, and as a matter of routine, forcibly outed to other prisoners. This in turn made them a target for other prisoners.
The ACLU-backed lawsuit stated, “Alabama’s segregation policy … excludes Plaintiffs from a wide range of critically important prison programs and jobs, and denies them equal access to rehabilitative and community re-entry opportunities.”
In court documents, one prisoner reportedly said the policy made HIV-positive prisoners feel they were treated as a “contagious animals” and that they were being punished “three times over.”
The prison service defended the policy as one of prisoner safety that was designed to prevent others contracting HIV. More convincing among its reasons for keeping the policy was that it is simply more efficient to house HIV-positive prisoners in one place as this means medical staff can be specifically targeted to those prisons.
The ACLU, however, contended it was an outmoded practice that violates the rights of inmates established under the law and that due to modern antiretroviral drugs, there was little to no danger of an HIV outbreak.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson agreed with the ACLU, ruling in December of 2012 that: “It is evident that, while the … segregation policy has been an unnecessary tool for preventing the transmission of HIV, it has been an effective one for humiliating and isolating prisoners living with the disease.”
Thompson ordered the prison service to end its forced segregation of HIV-positive prisoners.
The Department of Corrections settled the suit this summer, officially retiring the policy and beginning the process of reintegration. As noted above, that process is something that should be completed by the end of next year, should court approval on the reintegration and retraining plans, which includes zero-tolerance anti-discrimination lessons for both staff and inmates, be approved.
The AIDS crisis of the 1980s prompted many states, including states like New York, to effectively quarantine HIV-positive inmates so as to prevent transmission of the virus but, as knowledge of how the virus is transmitted has increased alongside the creation of modern antiretroviral drugs that could, after exposure, prevent the virus taking hold, most states have since repealed those policies, noting that as a result of modern medicine, HIV transmission risk is now drastically reduced despite the ever present problem of prisoners engaging in sex without protection.
The only other state to have retained a HIV-segregation policy in the near past is South Carolina. It specifically ended that policy in July of this year, bringing to a close the ACLU’s 26-year long struggle to halt HIV-positive inmate segregation in the United States.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.