Last night, Salon.com featured an op-ed by Rachel Maddow (Yes! That Rachel Maddow!) and Margaret Winter, Associate Director at the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP). Maddow worked for NPP from 2002 to 2004, and still covers issues of discrimination against people who are HIV-positive on her show. The duo wrote about the recent announcement that the Alabama Department of Corrections will now allow HIV-positive prisoners to participate in the prisons’ work-release programs. They write:
HIV-segregation policies stemmed from raging paranoia about HIV contagion, paranoia that was extreme in Mississippi and even worse in Alabama. 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. He thought they should all be permanently tagged (and Alabama did make its prisoners with HIV wear special uniforms so they could be immediately identified even at a distance). 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. Years later, former prisoners with HIV still weep when they describe the humiliation of being ostracized, isolated, mocked and warehoused in segregated dormitories behind razor wire in a prison-inside-the-prison, and in many cases serving far more time in prison simply because of their disease.
As their article points out, it’ll take many more small steps like Alabama’s towards completely eliminating discrimination against HIV-positive prisoners. The NPP continues to advocate for HIV-positive prisoners in the South — you can watch interviews with prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler prison in Alabama on our website.