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HIV+ Prisoners Sue Governor of Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) - The ACLU sued Alabama in a federal class action on behalf of HIV-positive inmates, who say they are segregated from the general population in state prisons, and denied training and rehabilitation opportunities, which will hurt their employment prospects when they are released.

The class claims that Alabama is one of only two states - South Carolina is the other one - that routinely segregate HIV prisoners.

"Alabama insists that segregation is justified by the need to provide medical care and to prevent HIV transmission in prison," the complaint states.

But the inmates say, "Prison systems throughout the United States have shown, however, that the states can meet their obligations to incarcerate prisoners safely and to provide them with necessary medical care without requiring prisoners with HIV to forfeit their right to be free from disability-based discrimination."

They say Alabama's policy of segregation in its prisons began in the 1980s, during a "tidal wave of public fear" of the HIV/AIDs epidemic, when "widespread popular confusion existed over the methods of HIV transmission."

All inmates entering the prison system must take an HIV test and "a positive result will determine every aspect of that person's life as long as he or she is in prison. More than the severity of their crime, the length of their sentence, or almost any other factor, the HIV test will determine where the prisoner will be housed, eat and recreate; his or her access to in-prison vocational, rehabilitative, and faith-based programs; and whether he or she will have the opportunity for supervised work in the community," according to the complaint.

At the Limestone prison, "Defendants publicly disclose prisoners' HIV status to all other prisoners, prison staff, and freeworld visitors ... in a variety of ways," the inmates say. "Prisoners with HIV are required to wear white armbands signifying their assignment to the FIIV living area at all times, even when the prisoners are working outside the prison gates. When free-world people take tours of Limestone, correctional officers point out the prisoners with HIV and disclose their HIV status. Some family members have learned that their loved ones have HIV through these various stigmatizing practices. The stigmatization follows the prisoners into the free world, and the widespread knowledge of their medical condition may result in potential employers refusing them jobs."

HIV-positive prisoners in the work release program are not placed in food service jobs and a correctional officer told a female inmate she could not work in a paper company because "she might get a paper cut," according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs say that once they are diagnosed, they are not allowed to eat with fellow inmates, not allowed to work in the kitchen, are denied transfers to jails closer to their homes and they cannot participate in substance abuse programs.

They seek damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act due to the practice of "excluding them on the basis of the HIV status from prison programs, jobs, activities and privileges, and publicly disclosing their HIV status." Named as defendants are Gov. Robert Bentley, four wardens and Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas.

The plaintiffs are represented by Allison E. Neal with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama in Montgomery.

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