Alabama state prisons unnecessarily and cruelly keep inmates with HIV segregated from the rest of the population, according to a class-action lawsuit that goes to trial on Monday.
"It's an HIV ghetto," according to a blog post by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is bringing the suit.
The Alabama Department of Corrections automatically excludes all prisoners with HIV from a host of rehabilitative and vocational programs that ADOC offers to all prisoners who don’t have HIV -- including trade schools, work release jobs, residential drug-treatment programs for prisoners struggling with substance abuse, and programs for prisoners suffering from serious mental illness. Prisoners with HIV are even barred from the faith-based dormitory and the dormitory for seniors.
Prisoners with HIV are also required to wear white armbands at all times, according to the ACLU.
A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment from The Huffington Post, but according to the Birmingham News, the state claims the policy was put in place for financial and safety reasons.
Prison officials said the current system allows the inmates to be treated by specialists, and the care would be too pricy to dole out if it were provided to everyone. In its editorial, the Birmingham News dismisses that argument, since "all prisons already provide medical care; dispensing HIV medications isn't going to add to the bill."
As for the claim that HIV-positive inmates are kept out of rehabilitative programs, the Birmingham News alleges that in recent years, the state has made it so that affected inmates can take part in education and religious programs and "in theory, get work-release jobs."
Rehabilitative and educational programs have been shown to reduce recidivism.
Prison officials also say the policy helps guard against the spread of HIV.
But Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, told HuffPost that justification doesn't hold water. She notes that, while many states instituted segregation policies when HIV and AIDS first emerged, medical evidence on how the disease is spread have made separating inmates an ineffective and unnecessary step. Currently, only Alabama and South Carolina separate prisoners based on their HIV status.
"The absolute most important thing which has made transmission plummet in prisons is the use of the new anti-retroviral therapies," Winter said.
"Medical care providers are now allowed to start treatment as soon as someone tests positive for HIV. When that happens, in the vast majority of cases, the virus drops to an undetected level."
Winter also notes that HIV-positive prisoners in Alabama come in contact with other inmates outside of their living quarters and in jails, among other locales.
"The only point of the system is to keep prisoners out of scores of incredibly important rehabilitative and vocational programs because they have HIV," Winter said. "It's a sham."