Inmates who are H.I.V. positive in Alabama and South Carolina — but nowhere else in the U.S. — are kept isolated from other prisoners in order to (say authorities) prevent the virus that causes AIDS from spreading and to keep medical costs down. To the inmates, this policy means they are treated separately and not equally, but stigmatized as if they were modern-day lepers, says a New York Times report.
The notion that the H.I.V. virus can be caught from food or airborne contact has most been debunked by experts. Indeed, other viruses, such as hepatitis B and C, are far more infectious than H.I.V.
In most states, H.I.V.-positive inmates are given powerful antiretroviral drugs to stem H.I.V. infection. Peter K. Cutler, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, notes that inmates are “not required to self-identify as being H.I.V. positive” when they are in custody.
H.I.V.-Positive Inmates Stigmatized in Alabama
A closer look at Alabama’s treatment of inmates who are H.I.V. positive more than suggests that it is set up with the convenience of the corrections system in mind, rather than for the benefit of prisoners.
About 270 of Alabama’s 26,400 inmates are H.I.V.-positive. They are housed in special dormitories — one for men, one for women — at two state prisons, Limestone Correctional Facility and the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
The ways in which H.I.V.-positive inmates are marked as “different” are many: they wear white plastic armbands identifying their condition (prison staff say these identify the dorm they are in rather than the disease); they eat alone (“for space reasons,” according to Kim T. Thomas, the Alabama Corrections Department commissioner); they cannot transfer to prisons where they would be closer to their families; they cannot live in dormitories specifically dedicated to elderly or religious inmates; they cannot visit with classmates in a substance-abuse program; they cannot have jobs involving working around food. Only for the past three years have they been able to attend prison-wide church services.
Some inmates interviewed by the New York Times note that they have been literally isolated — kept in solitary confinement — for a month while their diagnosis was being confirmed.
Officials point out that, as Alabama spends about $22,000 per year on treating H.I.V.-positive inmates, the total exceeds “the cost of medicine for all other inmates.” Alabama corrections officials claim that in effect quarantining H.I.V.-positive inmates means that fewer doctors are needed; that no inmates have developed AIDS; that the inmates enjoy “perks” including air conditioning and private cells. By restricting all H.I.V.-positive to so few facilities, the state (it is said) can provide a higher level of care for them.
Alabama’s Policy Deprives Prisoners of Their Rights
That is a debatable point. By isolating inmates who are H.I.V.-positive, Alabama is depriving them of access to basic social and human contact. As Margaret Winter, the associate director of the A.C.L.U.’s National Prison Project, tells the New York Times,
“Nothing is more important for successful re-entry than to be within visiting distance of your family and to have real work experience. They are denied that.”
Via work-release programs, fast food restaurants employ inmates among the general population. But H.I.V.-positive inmates are deprived of such opportunities.
Dr. Frederick L. Altice, the director of the H.I.V. in Prisons Program at the Yale School of Medicine, puts the point simply: ”Alabama is living in an incredibly anachronistic world. Time has changed, and they have not.”
In response to a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU in September, a federal judge, Myron H. Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama, is to rule on the state’s policy of isolating H.I.V.-positive inmates this week. Alabama and South Carolina must change their discriminatory policies towards inmates who are H.I.V.-positive in the name not only of their health and safety, but for basic human dignity.
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