MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A federal judge today ordered Alabama to stop segregating prisoners living with HIV, ruling that the practice violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson ruled in a class-action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of all Alabama prisoners with HIV that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) discriminates against the prisoners by housing them separately from all other prisoners and categorically denies them equal access to prison rehabilitative programs.
The court ruled the ADA prohibits blanket disability-based exclusions and mandates that prisoners with disabilities must be housed in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individuals. Exceptions may be made only on an individualized, case-by-case basis if the specific situation warrants different treatment.
Thompson said in his decision: “It is evident that, while the ADOC’s categorical segregation policy has been an unnecessary tool for preventing the transmission of HIV, it has been an effective one for humiliating and isolating prisoners living with the disease.”
“Today’s decision is historic,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project and lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “It spells an end to a segregation policy that has inflicted needless misery on Alabama prisoners with HIV and their families.”
The court issued a permanent injunction ordering Alabama to abandon its discriminatory practices, including its categorical exclusion of prisoners with HIV from work-release jobs in the food industry, from assignment to faith-based honor dorms, and from a host of other rehabilitative, educational, trade skills and vocational programs.
“Ending a policy that treated human beings like cattle to be tagged and herded is a tremendous victory for human rights,” said Olivia Turner, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, which participated in the lawsuit.
The court found that HIV-positive prisoners with serious mental health needs and substance abuse problems were wrongfully excluded even from critically important treatment programs.
The court’s decision also bans Alabama’s policy of requiring all male prisoners with HIV to always wear white armbands to alert others of their status, which Winter characterized as “a latter-day yellow star.”
The suit, Henderson et al. v. Thomas et al., was filed last year. There are approximately 240 male and 10 female prisoners living with HIV in the Alabama prison system.
During a month-long trial that began Sept. 17 in Montgomery, the ACLU argued that Alabama’s HIV policy is not based on legitimate interests in safety and is unnecessary to prevent the transmission of HIV.
Experts testified that the risk of transmitting HIV is virtually nonexistent for patients properly treated with modern HIV medications. And in surprise testimony, ADOC’s associate commissioner in charge of security admitted on cross-examination that he no longer believes the HIV-segregation policy is justified.
“Alabama’s policies regarding prisoners living with HIV are relics from an era of hysteria,” said Amanda Goad, staff attorney with the ACLU AIDS Project. “We look forward to seeing the Department of Corrections fully implement Judge Thompson’s decision and end its discriminatory practices.”
By Press Release