By BOB JOHNSON
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
It’s up to a federal judge in Montgomery to decide if the Alabama Department of Corrections can continue to isolate inmates who have tested positive for HIV even though the virus is no longer considered a death sentence.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson heard arguments made during the month-long trial challenging Alabama’s decades-old policy of mostly separating HIV-positive inmates from other prisoners.
Currently, Alabama and South Carolina are then only states that segregate HIV-positive prisoners.
ACLU lawyer Margaret Winter was the lead attorney representing the inmates. She said based on what Thompson told attorneys, she expects the judge to issue an opinion soon.
She said she believes attorneys for the inmates “proved there is no need to segregate HIV inmates to prevent transmission of HIV.”
The lawsuit accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Winter said in her opening statement during the trial that the policy keeps HIV-positive inmates from participating in some programs to help in their rehabilitation.
But the attorney for the state at the trial, Bill Lunsford, said the only thing the HIV-positive inmates are prohibited from doing is working in the prison kitchen. Winter, however, said the HIV-positive inmates often can’t get the same work-release jobs as other inmates, particularly food service jobs.
During the trial, attorneys for the state said HIV-positive inmates are allowed to participate in the same programs as other prisoners. A statement from prisons spokesman Brian Corbett said HIV-positive inmates are not universally segregated.
“As the evidence at trial showed, the department has devoted an extraordinary amount of effort and resources to ensuring that HIV-positive offenders in Alabama receive excellent health care within a limited number of facilities,” Corbett said. “It is a proven system that has effectively prevented the spread of HIV ... within our system.”
Winter said evidence at the trial showed there is training available at many locations, including in Alabama, on how to deal with HIV-positive inmates. She said the HIV-positive inmates are suffering a hardship because of the stigma of being tagged as being different.
“This policy is ongoing because of fears of top officials who are perpetuating a problem when they just don’t need to.” Winter said.