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"No Lost Causes"
A National Conference Brings Attention to Growing Plight of Prisoners With HIV

By Travis Foster

October 1, 2000

Within the halls of America’s correctional system, the conditions for prisoners with HIV and AIDS are, to say the least, bleak. A mostly invisible population, they are walled off from the information, treatment, and advocacy that has been critical in prolonging many lives people on the other side.

Lambda, along with health care providers, AIDS service organizations, former prisoners, faith-based organizations, people living with HIV, and others met in June to build a national strategy for defending the diminishing rights of this vulnerable population. The conference, titled "No Lost Causes" and sponsored by the ACLU Prison Project, was the first nationwide attempt to bring together a broad range of advocates to focus on a situation which, as Lambda’s AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens put it, "is unconscionable in 21st century America."

One impetus for the conference was sustaining the coalition which formed around Davis v. Hopper, an unsuccessful challenge to Alabama’s policy of segregating HIV-positive inmates in housing, classrooms, and work programs. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the segregation program did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Hanssens. Lambda and the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, urged the Supreme Court to hear the case and reverse the 11th Circuit’s dangerous ruling.

Astonishingly, the U.S. Department of Justice filed its own brief late last year actually urging the High Court not to review the case. The Justices turned away the appeal in January, leaving the stamp of federal approval on segregation programs currently operating throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, as well as partial segregation programs in numerous other states.

These programs isolate HIV-positive prisoners, creating a two-tiered, Orwellian world in which an individual’s HIV status determines everything from where they sleep, to whether or not they may attend schooling programs, to how often they may leave their cell. In this court-sanctioned system, an HIV-positive person convicted of a non-violent crime is, by virtue of her HIV status, considered to pose a greater threat, and is afforded less freedom of movement, than a rapist or a murderer.

Perhaps the most troubling result of Alabama’s court victory is that when a segregated prisoner comes up for parole, they cannot show good behavior via participation in schooling or work-release programs, and thus end up serving longer sentences on average than their HIV-negative counterparts. Adding to the sense of urgency felt by many conference participants was the deteriorating health of many prisoners with HIV or AIDS.

Prisoners, for example, must forfeit their prescription drugs upon entry. Though they need to take medication that requires a rigidly regular dosing regimen, HIV-positive prisoners may find themselves without medication for days at a time.

According to Jackie Walker, AIDS information coordinator at the ACLU Prison Project, "For many prisoners, jail is more than punishment, it is life threatening."

A second treatment concern for conference participants was the growing epidemic of Hepatitis C in prisons. Prisoners with Hepatitis C often go undiagnosed and untreated due to prison medical programs which Hanssens describes as "years behind and inadequate." The co-infection of Hepatitis C and HIV leads to further complications because drugs taken for HIV can exacerbate symptoms caused by Hepatitis C and vice versa. To adequately treat the increasing number of co-infected prisoners would require sustained monitoring of a prisoner’s condition -- an unlikely scenario given prison officials who have difficulty dispensing medication at regular intervals.

Conference attendees were not only concerned with current prisoners, but also with recently-released HIV-positive people, who find themselves without health care or -- especially in those areas with segregation policies -- lacking the contacts or job training necessary to fend for themselves. Said Hanssens, "Politicians and parole officers seem far more concerned with releasing a prisoner’s HIV status to family and relatives than they are with providing for basic human needs."

She stressed that the conference was the "first step in creating a national network of people who will continue to work on this issue." This will be especially true given that the conference attracted the interest of not only prison rights activists, but also mainstream AIDS groups, people of color organizations, and religious groups.

Over the next few months, Hanssens and other activists will begin to compile a resource library of briefs, medical information, and expert contact information to assist the growing community of people concerned about conditions for prisoners with HIV. These steps, say Margaret Winter, attorney for the prisoners in the Davis case, are "a way to channel the growing sense of hopelessness and frustration into a positive course of action."




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