The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 29, 2011

4 Limestone prisoners plaintiffs in ACLU suit

By Adam Smith

— The American Civil Liberties Union Monday filed a class action lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections over a policy to keep HIV-positive prisoners segregated from other prisoners.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, names Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas and a handful of other ADOC officials.

The suit was filed 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.

Allison Neal, legal director for the ACLU in Alabama, said the suit has been in the works for several years.

“We originally heard from HIV-positive inmates in 2006 or 2007 that they were being discriminated against by the Department of Corrections,” Neal said. “For several years, we negotiated with the commissioner to make changes in policy and we were able to make some changes, but we reached a point where they weren’t going to budget anymore and we felt like there were so many changes to be made.”

Limestone Correctional Facility Warden Dorothy Goode confirmed there are at least 200 HIV-positive prisoners at the facility, but referred all other questions to Brian Corbett with the Department of Corrections. The News Courier was unable to contact Corbett on Monday.

In a press release issued Monday by the ACLU, Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, described Alabama’s prison segregation policy as “nothing more than a shameful remnant of an earlier era of ignorance and hysteria about HIV.” The press release also says HIV segregation policies have been rejected in 48 states, and that South Carolina is the only other state with similar prison policies.

According to the press release, prisoners with HIV in Alabama are excluded from residential pre-release units where prisoners near the end of their sentence participate in programming aimed at ensuring they successfully transition from prison back into the community, faith-based honor dorms that work to reduce the chances that prisoners recidivate after their release and jobs in the kitchen and elsewhere that enable prisoners to gain marketable work skills and experience.

Prisoners with HIV in Alabama are also categorically excluded from the community corrections program, which affords qualified prisoners the opportunity to work in the community during the day, the release says.

“The policy of segregating prisoners with HIV not only is discriminatory, but it undermines what should be a goal shared by all Alabamians to save valuable taxpayer dollars by reducing the number of people in prison across the state,” said Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama. “We should be doing everything we can to provide the best possible rehabilitation opportunities to all prisoners in an effort to ensure that they lead healthy and productive lives upon release and don’t end up being reincarcerated.”

Last year, former prison commissioner Richard Allen, said giving prisoners either condoms or needles would run afoul of prison regulations and Alabama laws against sodomy and drug possession.

“Doing what they say we should do to minimize transmission (of HIV) would fly in the face of our own rules,” Allen said.