MONTGOMERY, Ala – Prison inmate Kathryn Canty seems like a prime candidate for work release: good behavior, less than three years left to serve, and an accounting degree along with vocational training.
But she also has HIV.
And inmate advocates say Alabama is the only state that bars prisoners with the AIDS virus from participating in work release.
"I'm a worker," said Canty, who finishes her 4 1/2-year sentence for forgery and theft next month. "Work release would have been a great help for me to catch up with technology as well as saving money to get back on my feet."
Work release is the closest thing to freedom for prisoners in Alabama, allowing select inmates to hold jobs on the outside, earn money and wear street clothes. They typically work at blue-collar jobs during the day and return to prison at night.
Alabama Corrections Department officials said HIV-infected inmates are barred because of a 2004 settlement under which the prison system agreed to watch such prisoners take their AIDS pills and make sure they are eating properly, too.
Such close monitoring — prompted by a lawsuit over poor health care for those with the AIDS virus — would be impossible on the outside, according to the department.
Also, Ruth Naglich, the department's associate commissioner of health services, said allowing inmates with HIV to work on the outside could expose them to illnesses and spread the AIDS virus.
"I think we have to ensure that healthy, responsible inmates are those participating and not those who are going to exhibit risky behaviors such as intravenous drug use or promiscuous sexual behavior if they're allowed to go into the community," she said.
Some Alabama lawmakers and the American Civil Liberties Union have been pressing officials to remove the restriction.
"I think we're dealing with a long custom here in Alabama. There's fear here," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. "Certainly we have no reason to think anything the commissioner is doing is based on malice — far from it — but there needs to be a rational look at the facts."
Work release ultimately "means less crime, fewer people returning to prison and ultimately it means a safer society for everybody," said David Fathi, director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. "So by denying work release to inmates with HIV who would otherwise be eligible, Alabama is shooting itself in the foot."
Alabama Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said that the situation is under review.
Alabama's women's prison has 15 people with HIV, and the men's medical ward averages 278, officials said. But only a few are eligible for work release — "A handful of women and maybe a score of men," Allen said — since the program is closed to murderers, rapists and other violent criminals, and inmates must meet other requirements.
On the outside, work release inmates typically land fast-food, clerical, maintenance or factory jobs.
Canty, who has completed courses in anger management, professional development and commercial interior design, applied for work release in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and was turned down each time.
"I felt abandoned or just like I don't matter," she said.