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Judge orders end to HIV prison segregation in Alabama

By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge ruled on Friday to end the segregation of prisoners with HIV in Alabama, agreeing that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

"It is evident that, while the ... 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," U. S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote in his ruling.

South Carolina now remains the only state segregating HIV inmates from the general population. Mississippi ceased a similar practice in March 2010.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over what the group contended was a discriminatory practice that prevented most HIV-positive inmates from participating in rehabilitation and retraining programs, including mental health and substance abuse programs, important for their success after prison.

"We won on all counts. It is a total victory and a glorious day for everyone with HIV," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project and lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Proponents of ending the policy sited an out-dated view of HIV/AIDS, which has become increasingly controllable. In the case of a virus transmitted by behavior, and not environment, preventing its spread is easier through proper medical treatment, rather than radical segregation of HIV positive inmates, according to Nancy Mahon, who chairs the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA).

"We now have ability to suppress the virus and reduce the possibility of transmission to four percent. Alabama and South Carolina have been in the dark ages about this public health sorrow," said Mahon, who also directs the MAC AIDS Fund, which is financing the ACLU challenges in both states.

"The last thing we want to do is send them back into the community without treatment," she added.

Two of Alabama's 29 prisons have dormitories specifically housing prisoners with HIV. A handful of prisoners had been allowed to live and work in non-segregated settings in work-release programs, Winter said.

Currently, the inmates with HIV live, eat and exercise apart from the general population, according to court documents filed by the ACLU. Male inmates in the HIV dormitories were given white armbands that signal their medical status.

"First, we are isolated ... like we are contagious animals," Dana Harley, another prisoner who was a plaintiff in the case, said in a letter included in the court file. "It is like punishment three times over."

Approximately 270 inmates out of the 26,400 in the state prison system have tested positive for the virus and none have developed AIDS, according to Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett, who did not respond to inquiries about the ruling.

The judge plans to rule separately on the medical criteria for work release for HIV prisoners, according to his ruling.

(Editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay)

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