A federal judge in Alabama has ordered the state to stop segregating its prisoners living with HIV, a “historic decision” according to prison advocates who successfully argued the practice violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a 153-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson ruled Friday in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the Alabama Department of Corrections discriminates against the state’s 250 prisoners living with the disease by housing them separately and denies them equal access to rehabilitative programs.
“Today’s decision is historic,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “It spells an end to a segregation policy that has inflicted needless misery on Alabama prisoners with HIV and their families.”
Thompson, in his decision, said that while the state’s 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.
"It is not transmitted through casual contact or through the food supply," he wrote. "A person would have to drink a 55-gallon 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."
Thompson’s ruling issued a permanent injunction ordering Alabama to halt its discriminatory practices, including the categorical exclusion of prisoners with HIV from work-release jobs in the food industry, assignment to faith-based honor dorms and other educational and vocational programs.
The decision also prohibits the state’s policy of requiring all male prisoners with HIV to wear white armbands at all times to inform others of their health status. Winter characterized the armbands as a “latter-day yellow star,” referring to a patch that Jews were ordered by Nazi Germans to wear in public.
“Ending a policy that treated human beings like cattle to be tagged and herded is a tremendous victory for human rights,” said Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama.
The lawsuit, Henderson et al v. Thomas et al, was filed last year. A month-long trial that began on Sept. 17 in Montgomery followed, with ACLU attorneys arguing that the state’s HIV policy is not based on legitimate interests in safety and is unnecessary to prevent transmission of the disease. Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that segregate HIV-positive prisoners.
“Alabama’s policies regarding prisoners living with HIV are relics from an era of hysteria,” said Amanda Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project. “We look forward to seeing the Department of Corrections fully implement Judge Thompson’s decision and end its discriminatory practices.”
The risk of transmitting HIV is virtually nonexistent for patients properly treated with modern medication, according to expert testimony during the trial. The Alabama Department of Corrections’ associate commissioner also admitted during cross-examination that he no longer believed HIV-segregation was justified.
The department, after an initial review of the ruling, said it was "very disappointed with the conclusions and characterizations reached by the court."
"The men and women of the (Department of Corrections) are not prejudiced against HIV-positive inmates, and have worked hard over the years to improve their health care, living conditions, and their activities," Commissioner Kim Thomas said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.