November 19, 2012
Federal judge Myron H. Thompson, of the Middle District of Alabama, plans to rule before Thanksgiving on the legality of isolating HIV-positive inmates from other prisoners. In September, the judge held a trial in a class action suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the Alabama Corrections Department on behalf of the HIV-positive inmates. The Alabama Corrections Department believes that separating HIV-positive inmates will prevent HIV transmission among inmates, and reduce medical costs. The department is concerned that the virus will spread through consensual sex, rape, or blood, such as when inmates give each other tattoos. Alabama and South Carolina are the only two states that still separate inmates with HIV.
Inmates are tested when they enter Alabama prisons. Of 26,400 inmates, approximately 270 have tested positive. Inmates who test positive are placed in special dormitories in two prisons: men are sent to the Limestone Correctional Facility and women to the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. There, inmates have air conditioned dormitories and private cells, but they are subject to the following restrictions: they eat alone and not in the cafeteria, they wear white plastic armbands identifying them as HIV positive, they are not allowed to work in jobs around food, they cannot live in dormitories for elderly or religious inmates, they cannot transfer to prisons closer to their families, and until three years ago, they could not attend prison-wide church services.
The state claims that by confining HIV-positive patients to two prisons, they are able to provide good care as fewer doctors are needed and the prisons can become centers for excellence, attracting HIV specialists. Both sides agree that the state provides high-quality care. The state claims that they could not provide the current level of care if inmates were spread across the state, but medical experts note that isolation is not necessary, as other states provide treatment to HIV-positive inmates at all facilities.
HIV positive inmates testified at the trial that prison workers bullied and ridiculed them, and they were subjected to embarrassment and abuse. In addition, Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, commented that being within visiting distance of family and having real work experience are two of the most important factors for successful reentry, but the HIV-positive inmates are being denied those opportunities.