ALABAMA – Trial begins on isolation of HIV-positive inmates

September 26, 2012

MONTGOMERY, ALA. — Alabama prisons continue to isolate inmates who have tested positive for HIV even though the virus is no longer the death sentence it once was considered, an attorney for HIV-positive prison inmates said Monday.

ACLU attorney Margaret Winter asked U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson Monday to end a longstanding Alabama prisons policy of isolating inmates who have tested positive for HIV.

Thompson is hearing testimony in a trial of a lawsuit brought by HIV-positive inmates challenging the Alabama prisons policy of keeping HIV-positive inmates separate from the remainder of the prison population. Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that continue to do so.

Attorney Bill Lunsford, representing Alabama prisons, said the HIV-positive prisoners are kept together in dormitories at Limestone Correctional Facility in north Alabama and at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. But he said the inmates can participate in most of the programs available to other inmates.

Lunsford and Winter made the remarks in opening statements in a trial of a federal lawsuit challenging the Alabama prisons’ HIV policy. The trial is expected to last about a month.

The ACLU claims the policy is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Winter said in her opening statement that the policy keeps HIV-positive inmates from participating in some programs to help in their rehabilitation.

But 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.

The trial’s first witness was Frederick Altice of Yale University, who described himself as an expert in the incarceration of HIV-positive inmates.

He described the prison system’s policy of isolating HIV-positive inmates as a mistake, particularly for inmates who are just learning that they are HIV-positive. He said some people still have the same reaction to HIV they had in past years, when it was considered more deadly.

“They think, ‘Am I never going to be able to see my children?’ or ‘Am I going to die?'” Altice said. “Being alone is not a good place for them to be.”

Lunsford repeatedly questioned Altice’s credentials, particularly when it comes to understanding how the Alabama prison policy works.

The trial continues Tuesday morning.

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