Lives of HIV Positive Prisoners in Mississippi Saved By Lawsuit, Says the ACLU

April 1, 2005 12:00 am

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JACKSON, MS- The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the dramatic improvements in medical treatment and living conditions for hundreds of HIV positive Mississippi prisoners as a result of litigation that concluded yesterday.

“In 1999, Mississippi prisoners with HIV/AIDS were denied life-saving drugs and were barred from the rehabilitation programs available to other Mississippi prisoners,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and lead attorney for the prisoners. “Their lawsuit has accomplished its purpose of saving lives and ending discriminatory policies against prisoners with HIV/AIDS.”

An order issued late yesterday by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis in Moore v. Fordice concludes litigation in which the ACLU’s National Prison Project became involved seven years ago. The judge’s order celebrated the litigation’s achievements. “The court appreciates the commitment of both sides in reaching the conclusion of this litigation,” wrote Davis. “Great strides were made in the treatment of HIV-positive inmates, not only through the perseverance of plaintiff’s counsel, but also through the recognition of the problem and desire to correct it shown by the defendants.”

In court documents, Dr. Robert L. Cohen, a former jail medical director in New York, described the conditions for HIV-infected prisoners at the Mississippi State Prison in Parchman before changes were made to improve care. “In 1999, it is appalling to discover men with HIV infection being treated with callous disregard for their medical problems,” wrote Cohen. Prisoners’ lives “are being shortened and they are enduring preventable pain and suffering because the basic medical needs are being ignored.”

In June 2004, a federal court order in this case also ended sanctioned discrimination against prisoners with HIV/AIDS who were banned from participation in community work programs because of their illness. For 14 years, Mississippi’s prison policy segregated HIV positive prisoners from the general population, barring them from educational and vocational opportunities available to other prisoners. Today, only Alabama continues a segregation policy that blocks all prisoners with HIV from participating in community corrections programs, although there is no valid evidence that segregating prisoners reduces the transmission of HIV within prisons.

“Seven years ago, HIV positive prisoners in Mississippi were being warehoused and were rapidly dying from lack of medical care,” Winter said. “The struggle they undertook all those years ago has made an enormous difference. We are very hopeful that the Mississippi Department of Corrections will work hard to preserve the gains accomplished through this litigation.”

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