The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

September 7, 2012

Suit over HIV inmate segregation going to trial



MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A lawsuit seeking to end Alabama's distinction of being one of two states that still segregates HIV-infected prisoners is going to trial under a federal judge's order Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson rejected the state prison system's request to dismiss the suit. His ruling allows the non-jury trial of the case to start Sept. 17 in Montgomery.

The suit was filed by eight inmates who want to end their segregated housing and mix with other prisoners.

Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas said the state won a similar case in 1999 and is prepared for trial on this one.

Margaret Winter of the ACLU's National Prison Project said the organization looks forward to “bringing an end to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ long, shameful history of discrimination against people with HIV.”

Thompson noted in his order that Alabama began segregating HIV-infected inmates in the 1980s, when many states were doing it. But only six states did it by 1994, and now only Alabama and South Carolina continue the practice.

The Alabama prison system houses 260 inmates with HIV. They are confined at Limestone Correctional Facility at Capshaw, Decatur Work Release Center, Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and Montgomery Women's Facility.

The judge rejected the state's arguments that it is immune from suit and that prisoners have no right to medical privacy. But he left one dismissal issue undecided: whether the suit is too similar to litigation filed by HIV-infected inmates in 1997 that sought to end segregated housing. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that case in the state's favor in 1999.

Attorneys for the eight inmates argued that conditions are much different, with medical advances changing attitudes about HIV and that HIV is no longer an “invariably fatal disease” like the appeals court found 13 years ago.

Thompson said he would rule at the end of the trial whether the current case is too similar to the original suit to proceed.

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