A federal judge on Monday approved a settlement to end the segregation of HIV-positive inmates in Alabama prisons, but it will be months before the practice concludes.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a 37-page opinion saying the blueprint to end the policy isn't perfect but should be allowed to take effect.
The settlement was the result of a previous decision by Thompson, who ruled that the practice of making HIV-positive prisoners live apart from other inmates discriminated against prisoners infected with the virus that causes AIDS and lacked a medical basis.
Female inmates with HIV already are living with other prisoners at the state's lone women's prison because of the ruling, and male inmates will be integrated into the general prison population by Nov. 1, 2014.
"There's nothing that says they can't do it sooner," said Margaret Winter, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing inmates.
The prison system and the ACLU issued a joint statement saying the agreement, which followed lengthy negotiations, "is in the best interest of the (Department of Corrections), its inmates and the citizens of the State of Alabama."
The settlement includes extensive training for prison workers and inmates to increase understanding of HIV infection.
The settlement ends prison practices such as requiring HIV-positive inmates to wear special armbands and establishes a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment of inmates infected with the virus. Inmates moving out of special HIV units will be eligible for new opportunities like work-release jobs and educational programs.
Thompson sided with prisoners in December and ordered the Department of Corrections to quit making HIV-positive inmates live in housing areas away from other prisoners. Thompson held two hearings last week on the resulting settlement.
The ACLU sued the prison system in 2011 over the segregation of HIV-positive inmates, with about 200 male prisoners at Limestone prison and fewer than 10 women at Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka.
Thompson approved $1.3 million in legal fees and expenses that must be paid by the state.
All other states have abandoned similar segregation policies except South Carolina, which plans to move HIV-positive inmates into the main prison population by Jan. 1.
Thompson noted that federal courts once upheld Alabama's policy of segregating HIV-positive inmates, but medical science has changed dramatically in the years since and the practice was no longer needed.