The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 23, 2012

Judge blocks HIV prison lawsuit

The News Courier

From staff, wire reports 

A judge struck down Alabama’s decades-old policy of segregating prison inmates with HIV, ruling Friday that it violates federal law.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of inmates who filed a suit to end the longstanding practice. Thompson says the state’s policy violates federal disabilities law.

Thompson said the state and inmate attorneys will have time to propose a way to bring state prisons into compliance with his order.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven HIV-positive inmates, called the decision “historic.”

“It spells an end to a segregation policy that has inflicted needless misery on Alabama prisoners with HIV and their families,” said ACLU attorney Margaret Winter.

A statement from Kim Thomas, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, said officials had just begun to review Thompson’s 152-page ruling. However, he said he is disappointed with Thompson’s decision.

“The men and women of the ADOC are not prejudiced against HIV-positive inmates, and have worked hard over the years to improve their health care, living conditions, and their activities,” he said in his statement. “The ADOC remains committed to providing appropriate housing for all of its inmates, including the HIV-positive population, ensuring that these inmates receive a constitutional level of medical care and that the correctional system in Alabama does not further contribute to the current HIV epidemic in our state.”

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.

Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that segregate HIV-positive prisoners. The class-action lawsuit accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In his 153-page opinion, Thompson recounted the history of the AIDS scare in the 1980s and noted the extreme rarity of HIV being transmitted by any means other than the sharing of bodily fluids, particularly during unprotected sex between males or between a man and a woman.

“It is not transmitted through casual contact or through the food supply,” he wrote. “A person would have to drink a 55-gallon drum of saliva in order for it to potentially result in a transmission. There is no documented case of HIV being sexually transmitted between women.”

Alabama’s policy resulted from a “panic” over AIDS in prisons, Thompson wrote. While other states have ended similar practices, he said, Alabama hasn’t because of “outdated and unsupported assumptions about HIV and the prison system’s ability to deal with HIV-positive prisoners.”

Bias from agency leaders is at the heart of the plan to segregate infected inmates, Thomas said.

Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said Thompson’s ruling will end a policy “that treated human beings like cattle to be tagged and herded.” She called the ruling “a tremendous victory for human rights.”

Thompson says he still must decide a part of the suit involving work-release inmates.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.