Judge: Stop seg­re­gat­ing HIV in­mates

Fed­eral rul­ing is win for ACLU; South Carolina only other state sep­a­rat­ing pris­on­ers with HIV.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By Bob­john­son

MONT­GOMERY, AlA. — A judge struck down Alabama’s decades-old pol­icy of seg­re­gat­ing prison in­mates with HIV, rul­ing Fri­day that it vi­o­lates fed­eral dis­abil­i­ties law.

U.S. District Judge My­ron Thompson ruled in fa­vor of in­mates who sued to end the long­stand­ing prac­tice and said he would give the state and in­mate at­tor­neys time to pro­pose a way to bring state prisons into com­pli­ance with his or­der.

The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, which filed the law­suit on be­half of seven HIV-pos­i­tive in­mates, called the de­ci­sion “his­toric.”

Prisons Com­mis­sioner Kim Thomas is­sued a state­ment say­ing cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials were still study­ing the rul­ing and had not de­cided “our next course of ac­tion.

But he said the de­part­ment “is very dis­ap­pointed with the con­clu­sions and char­ac­ter­i­za­tions reached by the Court.”

“The men and women of the ADOC are not prej­u­diced against HIV-pos­i­tive in­mates, and have worked hard over the years to im­prove their health care, liv­ing con­di­tions, and their ac­tiv­i­ties,” Thomas said. “The ADOC re­mains com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing ap­pro­pri­ate hous­ing for all of its in­mates, in­clud­ing the HIV-pos­i­tive pop­u­la­tion, en­sur­ing that th­ese in­mates re­ceive a con­sti­tu­tional level of med­i­cal care and that the cor­rec­tional sys­tem in Alabama does not fur­ther con­trib­ute to the cur­rent HIV epi­demic in our State.”

Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that seg­re­gate HIV-pos­i­tive pris­on­ers. The class-ac­tion law­suit ac­cused the state of vi­o­lat­ing the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act.

“It spells an end to a seg­re­ga­tion pol­icy that has in­flicted need­less mis­ery on Alabama pris­on­ers with HIV and their fam­i­lies,” said ACLU at­tor­ney Mar­garet Win­ter, who was lead coun­sel for the plain­tiffs dur­ing a month­long trial.

Nei­ther the law­suit or the judge’s rul­ing men­tions South Carolina, but Win­ter said she hoped it helped end that state’s prac­tice.

“A judge con­sid­er­ing a sim­i­lar case in South Carolina would al­most cer­tainly give this rul­ing sig­nif­i­cant weight, but would not be re­quired to fol­low it. We hope this opin­ion will in­flu­ence South Carolina to aban­don its pol­icy,” Win­ter said.

In his opin­ion, the judge re­counted the his­tory of the AIDS scare in the 1980s and noted the ex­treme rar­ity of HIV be­ing trans­mit­ted by any means other than the shar­ing of bod­ily flu­ids, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing un­pro­tected sex.

“It is not trans­mit­ted through ca­sual con­tact or through the food sup­ply,” he wrote. “A per­son would have to drink a 55gal­lon drum of saliva in or­der for it to po­ten­tially re­sult in a trans­mis­sion. There is no doc­u­mented case of HIV be­ing sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted be­tween women.”

The prison sys­tem had asked Thompson to dis­miss the plain­tiff’s claims, say­ing the is­sue had been de­cided in an ear­lier law­suit. But Thompson wrote that cir­cum­stances have changed since that rul­ing and HIV “is no longer in­evitably fa­tal.”

Alabama’s pol­icy re­sulted from a “panic” over AIDS in prisons, Thompson wrote. While other states have ended sim­i­lar prac­tices, Alabama hasn’t be­cause of “out­dated and un­sup­ported as­sump­tions about HIV and the prison sys­tem’s abil­ity to deal with HIV-pos­i­tive pris­on­ers.”

He still must de­cide a part of the suit in­volv­ing work-re­lease in­mates.

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