You can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat.
You can’t catch HIV from kitchen utensils.
You can’t catch HIV from everyday contact with the people around you.
Old news, right? In fact, all of those points were made in Understanding AIDS, the health information pamphlet mailed to every American household by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1988. But apparently the message was lost on folks at the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
In 2012, ADOC still bars prisoners living with HIV from participating in a host of prison programs and activities…such as working in some of the prison kitchens, and in the free-world poultry processing plant where other prisoners on work release are able to get paying jobs. Alabama officials say they know there’s no actual health risk associated with HIV-positive people working in food service, but that their policy is justified for “security” reasons – meaning that others would react violently if a person with HIV touched their food.
ADOC also confines all male prisoners living with HIV in a designated area at Limestone Correctional Facility, and instructs Limestone’s guards that “Routine physical contact with [HIV unit] inmates should be kept at a minimum at all times.” That’s even though public health authorities have been explaining since the 1980s that routine physical contact does not transmit HIV. And when prisoners living with HIV participate in residential drug treatment programs that are supposed to provide an immersion experience, ADOC makes them return to the HIV segregation area to sleep, to eat, and allegedly even to use the bathroom.
These are among the issues in Henderson et al. v. Thomas et al., a class action lawsuit brought by the ACLU’s AIDS Project and National Prison Project, together with the ACLU of Alabama, on behalf of all Alabama prisoners living with HIV. We’re arguing that ADOC’s policies of segregating and excluding HIV-positive individuals violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and a similar federal law called the Rehabilitation Act. The trial in the case begins today before Judge Myron Thompson in federal court in Montgomery.
It’s sickening that ADOC continues to forcefully advocate policies that fuel irrational fears about HIV transmission. It’s sad that ADOC has so little confidence in the ability of its prisoners and staff to overcome prejudice and adapt to change. It’s also silly for Alabama to claim that its policies are necessary to prevent “unrest,” when dozens of states, including next-door-neighbor Mississippi, have ended their prisons’ HIV exclusion and segregation policies without incident. And it’s chilling how much this situation calls to mind previous struggles for integration and equal opportunity in the Deep South.
I’m honored to be part of the trial team in this case, and I look forward to helping prove that neither “health” nor “security” concerns excuse blanket discrimination and pandering to ignorance.