Court Order Ends Discrimination Against HIV+ Prisoners in Mississippi, ACLU Welcomes Hard Fought Reform

June 17, 2004 12:00 am

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JACKSON, MS-The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded a federal court order that finally ends all sanctioned discrimination against prisoners with HIV/AIDS who are banned from participation in community work programs because of their illness.

“After 14 years of battling Mississippi’s policy of segregating HIV-positive prisoners, these men and women will no longer be denied access to community corrections programs that help to rehabilitate them and speed their return home,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and lead-counsel for the prisoners.

“Now, with only Alabama continuing to exclude all prisoners with HIV/AIDS from community corrections programs, we hope to soon see the end of the era of officially sanctioned HIV discrimination in American prisons,” Winter added.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis issued his decision last week ordering the Mississippi Department of Corrections to “allow HIV-positive prisoners who otherwise meet the criteria for Community Work Centers to participate in Community Work Centers, on the same basis as prisoners who do not have HIV.”

Lifting the ban on prisoners with HIV/AIDS remedies the last discriminatory component of Mississippi’s decades-old segregation policy. In 2000, then-Commissioner Robert L. Johnson appointed a task force to study the issue of access to in-prison programs for HIV-positive prisoners. The Task Force, which included staff from the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the Mississippi ACLU, recommended the integration of prisoners with HIV into educational and vocational programs. Shortly thereafter, the commissioner announced that he had decided to adopt the recommendations of the Task Force. In September 2001, Mississippi began allowing people with HIV to participate in all in-prison vocational, rehabilitation and educational programs. HIV-positive prisoners were still excluded from community corrections programs, but a huge step forward had been taken.

“Today I am proud to say that Mississippi has closed the door on sanctioned HIV discrimination within its prisons,” said Nsombi Lambright, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “This new change protects prisoners and the public because providing employment opportunities to more prisoners eases their reentry into the community and lessens the likelihood of recidivism.”

As of March 2004, there were 238 prisoners with HIV in Mississippi prisons. In 1985, 38 state prison systems segregated all prisoners with HIV, and another eight segregated prisoners with asymptomatic HIV. Today, only Alabama continues a segregation policy that blocks all prisoners with HIV from participating in community corrections programs. There is no valid evidence that segregating prisoners with HIV reduces the transmission of HIV within prisons.

Litigation filed by the ACLU on behalf of Mississippi’s HIV-positive prisoners continues in Gates v. Collier, consolidated with Moore v. Fordice. On June 28, 2004 a hearing before Judge Davis will examine the continuing allegations of inadequate medical care and conditions for the men and women living with HIV in Mississippi’s prisons. The prisoners are represented by Winter of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Jackson attorney Elizabeth Jane Hicks.

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