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SC prison system braces for federal lawsuit on policy of housing HIV inmates separately

South Carolina prison officials say they have no plans to stop segregating HIV-positive inmates despite the threat of a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department.

The state faces a Wednesday deadline to change the practice, which prison officials say is best for inmates and prison employees.

All state prisons "are safer from a public health perspective and a security perspective as a direct result of this program," Corrections Department attorney David Tatarsky wrote in an August response to the Department of Justice.

More than 400 HIV-positive inmates are housed together at maximum security prisons in Columbia, including some who would not usually be in such high-security facilities. Infected prisoners attend activities with other inmates, including work, school and faith-based programs, but eat and sleep separately.

"Many inmates with HIV suffer disparate treatment from other similarly situated inmates without HIV," the department wrote to South Carolina officials in June, when it gave them three months to make changes.

Alabama, which has 250 HIV-positive inmates, is the only other state that segregates them. Both were criticized in a report issued earlier this year by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, which said officials should house all inmates together and give prisoners condoms and syringes to slow the spread of AIDS.

The report argued that HIV-positive inmates don't have access to the same programs and jobs as other prisoners and are wrongly stigmatized. They are also prevented from participating in work-release programs, meaning they can't earn credits to shorten their sentences.

"That inevitably means that they serve longer sentences and are essentially being warehoused for no reason other than a medical condition," Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said Tuesday.

Corrections officials have offered a compromise that would also allow infected inmates to attend work-release programs, but Director Jon Ozmint has said DOJ shot down that proposal.

In the mid-1980s, 46 of the nation's 51 prison systems housed HIV-positive prisoners separately from the general population, but most have since stopped. Most recently, Mississippi stopped segregating its 152 HIV-positive inmates in May, sending them to prisons around the state.

The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Alabama officials said they have not been threatened with a lawsuit. South Carolina prison officials were not available for comment Tuesday, but said in an Aug. 20 response to the DOJ that they do not intend to change their policy.

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