The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 21, 2012

Judge to decide in lawsuit over inmates with HIV


From staff, wire reports

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — It's up to a federal judge in Montgomery to decide if the Alabama Department of Corrections can continue to isolate inmates who have tested positive for HIV even though the virus is no longer considered a death sentence.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson heard arguments made during the month-long trial challenging Alabama's decades-old policy of mostly separating HIV-positive inmates from other prisoners.

Currently, Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that segregate HIV-positive prisoners.

The suit was filed in April last year on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, four of which are in the Limestone Correctional Facility in Capshaw. The four prisoners were identified as Louis Henderson, Darrell Robinson, Dwight Smith and Albert Knox. Two other prisoners — Roosevelt James and John Hicks — are part of the Decatur work release program. Four female plaintiffs — Dana Harley, April Stagner, Ashley Dotson and Melinda Washington — are imprisoned at Tutwiler Prison for Women.

ACLU lawyer Margaret Winter was the lead attorney representing the inmates. She said based on what Thompson told attorneys, she expects the judge to issue an opinion soon.

She said she believes attorneys for the inmates "proved there is no need to segregate HIV inmates to prevent transmission of HIV."

The lawsuit accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Winter said in her opening statement during the trial that the policy keeps HIV-positive inmates from participating in some programs to help in their rehabilitation.

But the attorney for the state at the trial, Bill Lunsford, said the only thing the HIV-positive inmates are prohibited from doing is working in the prison kitchen. Winter, however, said the HIV-positive inmates often can't get the same work-release jobs as other inmates, particularly food service jobs.

Lunsford said the HIV-positive prisoners are kept together in dormitories at Limestone Correctional Facility in North Alabama and at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. But he said the inmates can participate in most of the programs available to other inmates.

A statement from prisons spokesman Brian Corbett said HIV-positive inmates are not universally segregated.

"As the evidence at trial showed, the department has devoted an extraordinary amount of effort and resources to ensuring that HIV-positive offenders in Alabama receive excellent health care within a limited number of facilities," Corbett said. "It is a proven system that has effectively prevented the spread of HIV ... within our system."

Winter said evidence at the trial showed there is training available at many locations, including in Alabama, on how to deal with HIV-positive inmates. She said the HIV-positive inmates are suffering a hardship because of the stigma of being tagged as being different.

"This policy is ongoing because of fears of top officials who are perpetuating a problem when they just don't need to." Winter said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.