Victory for HIV Inmates | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Victory for HIV Inmates

On March 31, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis ended a 15-year-long lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) over the treatment of HIV-positive inmates. Judge Davis' federal court order demanded an end to all sanctioned discrimination against prisoners with HIV/AIDS banned from participation in community-work programs because of their illness.

HIV-positive inmates filed suit in 1990 over conditions at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. In 1999, Davis ordered the MDOC to give HIV-positive prisoners access to AIDS drug combination therapy. In June 2004, he directed MDOC to allow HIV-positive prisoners to participate in the system's community-work programs, ending the segregation of the approximately 220 inmates who had been housed separately from the rest of the prison population.

In 2000, a task force appointed by then=Commissioner Robert L. Johnson to study the access to in-prison programs for HIV-positive prisoners recommended the integration of prisoners with HIV into educational and vocational programs. Johnson adopted these recommendations. In September 2001, the state 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,.

Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU said: "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."

According to the ACLU's Web site, "In March 2004, there were 238 prisoners with HIV in Mississippi's 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."

Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project and lead counsel for the prisoners, notes with sadness: "One and only one of the prisoners who brought that suit is still alive…. I don't think he would be alive right now if not for that injunction."

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