In a sweeping 153-page decision, a federal district court ruled December 21 that the Alabama Department Corrections’ policy of housing HIV-positive inmates in a separate facility violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Ending a policy that treated human being like cattle to be tagged and herded is a tremendous victory for human rights,” said Olivia Turner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, in a news release.
Alabama and South Carolina are the the only states that still separate inmates with HIV from other inmates in their prison system. In almost all cases, the inmates in Alabama’s prison system are barred from participating in the court’s rehabilitative and educational programs, even when they have significant mental health and substance abuse issues.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama chided the state for following a policy “based on outdated and unsupported assumptions about HIV and the prison system’s ability to deal with HIV-positive prisoners” and fostering a “system-wide tolerance for a culture of bias, rooted in large measure in ignorance about HIV.”
In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit had upheld the policy, finding that the risk of spreading HIV was so high that it fell outside the purview of ADA’s protections. In Friday’s decision, the court emphasized that this rationale is no longer applicable because advances in science and medicine have dramatically reduced the risk of transmitting HIV.
“Today, however, HIV does not invariably cause death. The vast majority of infected individuals can expect to live a near-normal lifespan,” the court stated. “Therefore, the heightened standard that the Eleventh Circuit applied in Onishea for fatal illnesses no longer applies to HIV.”
The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, which argued the case during a month-long trial held in September and October.
An estimated 250 prisoners are living with HIV in the Alabama prison system.