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Mississippi Ends Draconian Segregation Policy Against Prisoners with HIV

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March 17, 2010

One down, two to go.

Today we’re happy to announce the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has agreed to stop segregating prisoners with HIV. South Carolina and Alabama remain the only states that continue to segregate prisoners with HIV.

These segregation policies are a result of decades-old fear and hysteria and paranoia about HIV. As Rachel Maddow and the ACLU’s Margaret Winter pointed out last year,

[…]During a federal trial in the mid-1990s, an Alabama warden testified that the segregation policy was an essential security measure since people with HIV were as dangerous as rattlesnakes…A warden at the women’s prison in Alabama testified that it was too dangerous to allow prisoners with HIV to attend chapel because they might leap from their seats and bite someone to deliberately infect them with the disease.

But public and correctional health experts agree that this fear is totally unfounded, and there is no medical basis for segregating prisoners with HIV within correctional facilities. Regardless of this, since 1987, MDOC has performed mandatory HIV tests on all prisoners entering the state prison system, and has permanently housed all male prisoners with HIV in a segregated unit at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the state’s highest security prison. So prisoners who would normally be housed in low-custody facilities were forced to serve their sentences in more violent, more expensive prisons, because they have HIV.

This change in policy is just the latest success after years of advocacy by the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Human Rights Watch on behalf of prisoners with HIV. In 2001, MDOC ended its policy of excluding prisoners with HIV from in-prison vocational, educational and religious programs. And in 2004, as a result of a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of all Mississippi prisoners with HIV, MDOC ended its policy of excluding prisoners with HIV from the state’s work release and community corrections programs.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that a new Pew Center report has found a slight decline in state prison populations, attributable, in part, to states looking to save money by incarcerating less people. This is done mostly by keeping parolees from landing back in prison, which is accomplished by providing the kinds of rehabilitative services that were once denied prisoners with HIV, such as education and work release programs.

So these reforms not only end discriminatory and unjust policies, but they’re grounded in good correctional and fiscal policy as well.

So Alabama and South Carolina, what are you waiting for?