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Henderson et al. v. Thomas et al.

Location: Alabama
Last Update: September 30, 2013

What's at Stake

A federal judge has ruled that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) can no longer discriminate against prisoners living with HIV by housing them separately from all other prisoners and categorically denying them equal access to prison rehabilitative programs, according to a landmark decision in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU National Prison Project, the AIDS Project, and the ACLU of Alabama. This ruling paves the way for prisoners living with HIV to have access to needed and appropriate services, and to the classes and training available to other prisoners.

When the ACLU filed this lawsuit, Alabama was one of only two states that continued to segregate inmates living with HIV in separate housing assignments, and otherwise restricted their access to prison programs including work release, drug rehabilitation programs, and other highly coveted privileges such as housing in the honor or faith-based dorms. After years of advocacy with the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to eliminate this policy, we filed suit in federal district court in March 2011, challenging the Alabama Department of Corrections’ policy on behalf of all inmates living with HIV.

U.S. District Court Judge Myron H. Thompson ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits blanket disability-based exclusions and mandates that prisoners with disabilities must be housed in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individuals. Exceptions may be made only on an individualized, case-by-case basis if the specific situation warrants different treatment.

The court ordered Alabama to develop a plan to end its discriminatory practices, which the ACLU argued included its categorical exclusion of prisoners with HIV from work-release jobs in the food industry, from assignment to faith-based honor dorms, and from a host of other rehabilitative, educational, trade skills and vocational programs. Additionally, the court found that HIV-positive prisoners with serious mental health needs and substance abuse problems were wrongfully excluded even from critically important treatment programs. Experts also presented evidence to support the ACLU’s argument that Alabama’s HIV policy is not based on legitimate interests in safety and is unnecessary to prevent the transmission of HIV. And in surprise testimony, ADOC’s associate commissioner in charge of security admitted on cross-examination that he no longer believes the HIV-segregation policy is justified.

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