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HIV Ghettos in U.S. Prisons Are Finally in the Past

Margaret Winter,
National Prison Project
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July 10, 2013

We are thirty years into the HIV epidemic. Surely, by now, stigmatization, isolation and discrimination against people living with HIV should be a relic of the past. Yet up until today, categorical HIV segregation – one of the ugliest remnants of the darkest days of the epidemic – has not only survived, but has been officially sanctioned in South Carolina's prison system.

South Carolina subjects all its prisoners to mandatory HIV testing as soon as they enter the system. Until today, prison officials have isolated all those who test positive in solitary confinement and then segregate them in HIV-only housing ghettos to serve out their prison terms. The State publicly stigmatizes all prisoners with HIV, by forcing them to wear badges – all too reminiscent of a Yellow Star or a Scarlet Letter – showing that they live in an HIV-only dorm.

This HIV segregation policy has long subjected all South Carolina prisoners to far harsher and more degrading conditions, with far fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, than their HIV-negative peers – and in many cases it has resulted in people with HIV serving longer time in prison solely because of their HIV status.

The State currently confines all of its 600 male prisoners with HIV – even minimum-security prisoners serving sentences for trivial offenses – in a maximum security prison that houses South Carolina's death row. The State bars all prisoners with HIV, including the 40 HIV-positive women in its custody, from eating in the dining hall with other prisoners. All prisoners with HIV are excluded from all jobs in prison food service. All prisoners with HIV are categorically excluded from work release programs – probably the most important of all prison programs, because work release so significantly improves a prisoner's chances of a successful re-entry to the community. Prisoners with HIV are not even allowed to sit together during church services with other prisoners.

Starting today, however, all that is going to change. The South Carolina Department of Corrections has announced that it is abolishing its policy of HIV segregation.

The announcement marks the end of the era of HIV segregation in America's prisons. It also marks the culmination of a quarter-century long campaign by the ACLU to end HIV segregation throughout the nation. For the past twenty years, the epicenter of this campaign has been in the Deep South, where HIV stigma, discrimination and segregation have persisted most stubbornly.

HIV segregation in prison came into being during the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when panic, fear and confusion were at their height. Between 1980 and 1990, 25 states enacted laws intended to subject people to criminal prosecution or quarantine if they engaged in vaguely defined behaviors perceived to spread disease. By 1985, 46 of 51 prison systems had adopted HIV segregation policies.

By 1994, however, as scientists learned more about modes of transmission, and public health officials stressed that HIV cannot be spread through food or food handling, insects, kissing, air, water, saliva, or tears, HIV policies rapidly evolved, and the number of state prison systems that segregated people with HIV had dropped from 46 to six.

By 2005, the last three states in the nation that clung to the policy and practice of categorical HIV segregation were Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. In 2010, under pressure of a scathing report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, Mississippi completely abandoned HIV segregation. And in December 2012, following a month-long trial in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, a federal court issued a blistering opinion ruling that Alabama's HIV segregation policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. That ruling was no doubt the trigger to South Carolina's wise decision today to end HIV segregation voluntarily.

Why has HIV prejudice had such a tenacious hold in prison systems in the Deep South? The Alabama Court noted that a relentless stigma adheres to HIV, in part due to the higher incidence of HIV among historically marginalized groups such as gay men, minorities and the poor. Thus, HIV stigma "deeply implicates race and class prejudice, as well as homophobia."

Today, we wholeheartedly celebrate South Carolina's decision to end HIV segregation. That decision will dramatically affect the lives of all HIV-positive prisoners in the State's custody, now and in the future. What's more, it will have a powerful affirmative effect on the community as a whole, by breaking down deeply-rooted HIV prejudice, which – just like prejudices based on race and sexual orientation – has for too long needlessly divided us.

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