WETUMPKA (AP) — An HIV-infected female prisoner testified today at a closed hearing about the Alabama prison system's policy of segregating HIV-positive inmates from other inmates, and a judge is considering a proposed settlement of a lawsuit challenging the policy.
The inmate at Tutwiler Prison for Women, 40-year-old Dana Harley, testified inside the prison before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson. The judge must determine if a proposed settlement of a lawsuit challenging the policy is fair. Thompson is not expected to rule until after another hearing Thursday at Limestone Correctional Facility.
The hearing at Tutwiler was closed to the news media and the public.
However, Harley spoke with The Associated Press on Monday, giving a preview of her expected testimony. She said life has been better since she and seven other HIV-infected prisoners moved into dormitories with other prisoners at Tutwiler, which holds about 700 women.
"I got involved because I just pretty much got tired of the treatment and I started writing a few lawyers," said Harley, who is serving a 20-year sentence on theft and forgery-related charges from Geneva County after pleading guilty in 2002. She said the transition has gone pretty well.
But Harley said she and the other HIV inmates had to give up things like privacy and air conditioning that went along with the small ward set aside for HIV prisoners. She sees herself as something of a trailblazer behind bars.
"In order to gain things you have to give up some things," she said.
The agreement says male inmates who have tested positive for HIV will no longer to be segregated at Limestone nor will women with HIV be segregated in one dormitory at Tutwiler.
The shift comes after HIV-positive inmates sued in 2011 saying the policy violated their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case went to trial last fall and Thompson ruled in favor of the inmates.
The agreement, according to court records, also says inmates with HIV will be eligible to be housed at every other Department of Corrections prison in Alabama. The agreement calls for the Department of Corrections to pay attorney fees, but does not call for any individual payments to inmates.
The agreement also calls for the prison system to stop its practice of isolating inmates newly diagnosed with HIV, and it will require training for inmates and staff at the facilities where the HIV-positive inmates will be held.
The inmates have been represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Margaret Winter, the lead ACLU attorney representing the inmates, said Harley testified along with other inmates and Tutwiler Warden Bobby Barrett.
Winter said no one voiced any objections to the settlement. She said moving the HIV-positive inmates at Tutwiler and educating inmates and staff went smoothly. She said the process would be more complicated at Limestone, where there are about 200 HIV-positive inmates.
"There is more to do with the men," Winter said. "We feel confident that the Department of Corrections is committed to doing it correctly."
Now that segregation has obviously ended at Tutwiler, Winter said, Limestone is one of the last prisons in America that segregates HIV-positive inmates. Previously Alabama and South Carolina were the last states with such policies. South Carolina has changed its policy and plans to transfer HIV-positive prisoners by Jan. 1, said South Carolina prisons spokesman Clark Newsom.