Strengthened by Federal Appeals Court Ruling, ACLU Presses Ahead Fighting for HIV-Positive Prisoners

Affiliate: ACLU of Mississippi
November 22, 2000 12:00 am

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JACKSON, MS – On the heels of a federal appeals court decision that Mississippi prisoners with HIV and AIDS have been inadequately represented, the American Civil Liberties Union today vowed to press ahead to ensure standard medical care, safe and humane prison conditions and equal treatment regardless of HIV status.

This week’s 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that more than 150 HIV-positive inmates at Parchman State Prison have been denied proper representation and care. The 2-1 decision granting the inmates’ request to have the ACLU represent them in the class-action case will prevent the state from further interfering with the ACLU’s involvement.

“This decision restores the prisoners’ legal options and increases the likelihood that they will be treated humanely and equally,” said David Ingebretsen, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “But we never expected this to be resolved entirely in the courts, which is why we’ve worked with citizens’ groups, clergy and prison officials to improve conditions. With this week’s decision, we’re more committed than ever to pursuing every avenue available on behalf of these prisoners and their families.”

The ACLU of Mississippi and the ACLU’s National Prison Project helped assemble a delegation of statewide leaders to meet with prison officials this fall. The ACLU is also working with a statewide task force on HIV inmates that was formed recently by Mississippi’s Corrections Commissioner.

Legal and political advocacy on behalf of inmates at Parchman State Prison was hampered by a lower court ruling that prohibited ACLU advocates and attorneys from discussing prison conditions with the HIV-positive inmates — even though every single inmate requested that the ACLU represent them. This week’s decision will enable the ACLU to communicate with and advocate for the inmates, while continuing to work with community members and prison officials on medical care and equal treatment.

An HIV-positive former prisoner at Parchman said this week’s decision is cause for hope. “It is almost impossible to describe what it’s like to live with HIV or AIDS in some state prisons,” said former inmate Rick Perritt. “But now – with access to the courts and a chance to work with a new state prison administration that is more willing to address this – we may finally bring about lasting change.”

Now in its eighth year, the lawsuit in Mississippi has sparked a national debate over whether HIV-positive inmates in state prisons receive adequate medical care, and whether they should be segregated and deemed ineligible for prison vocational training programs and other opportunities afforded to prisoners without HIV or AIDS.

“What began as a lawsuit has transformed into a movement,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “In Mississippi we’re working not just in the courts but in the community — and we’re showing the rest of the country that improving conditions for prisoners with HIV and AIDS can be done through cooperation and collaboration. This ruling only strengthens that effort.”

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