There is probably nowhere in the nation where the irrational fear of contagion from people with HIV has persisted so stubbornly as in Southern prisons – and no prison system in the nation where that fear has had such a stranglehold on policymakers as Alabama’s. So it was an act of considerable political courage earlier this month when the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, Richard Allen, decided to put an end to the department’s decades-long ban on prisoners with HIV from the state’s work-release program. For the first time in a quarter-century, prisoners with HIV are now eligible to participate in this program which, more than any other, increases the odds for successful reentry to the community. Work-release allows prisoners to hold paying jobs in the community during the day, gain sorely needed job skills and experience, set aside savings for rent and child support, begin paying off court fees, and even find permanent jobs.
The decision ending the ban on prisoners with HIV in Alabama’s work-release program is a watershed moment in a two-decades-long effort by the ACLU, in alliance with many other advocates, to end arbitrary HIV discrimination against prisoners around the country. The campaign – which began with class-action litigation and evolved into a major organizing campaign dubbed “No Lost Causes” – was most intense in Alabama and Mississippi, the two states where HIV-segregation policies took their most extreme and entrenched forms. In those states, all prisoners with HIV were permanently quarantined and barred from every single prison program and activity offered to other prisoners – including chapel, choir, prison jobs, vocational training, college courses, early-release programs, substance-abuse treatment, therapeutic treatment communities for drug and alcohol abuse, faith-based programs, and access to libraries, baseball fields and gymnasiums. Programs like these not only have a major effect on a prisoner’s quality of life during his or her sentence, but also influence parole boards assessing whether a prisoner’s sentence has been sufficiently constructive and rehabilitative to warrant the prisoner’s release. The exclusion of prisoners living with HIV from prison programs has the material impact of forcing prisoners with HIV, as a class, to serve longer sentences.
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.
Although the work-release decision by Alabama’s commissioner goes some distance toward bringing Alabama into the mainstream, challenges remain. Even as official policy improves, de facto HIV segregation persists. In Alabama, even after years of effort by a powerful alliance of state legislators, prominent church leaders, and national and local HIV advocates, as well as the efforts of an enlightened commissioner, prisoners with HIV continue to be excluded from faith-based honor dorms, rehabilitative classes, prison dining halls, sports fields, residential substance abuse programs, work crews and most prison jobs. Nevertheless, the distance traveled has been immense. Only one state, South Carolina, now lags behind Alabama in its continued insistence on barring HIV-positive prisoners from work-release. And only a handful of other states retain bans on prisoners with HIV in specific in-prison programs, activities and jobs. These bans are baseless, vulnerable to legal challenge and ethically embarrassing to the states that retain them.
It is way past time to end all remnants of discrimination against prisoners with HIV. No one should be punished with longer prison time, harsher conditions and greatly reduced opportunities for rehabilitation for no other reason than being HIV-positive. It’s a matter of simple justice.