CIVIL rights activists once fought for undeniably just causes. Today, their courtroom battles often generate outcomes that seem counterproductive. Take the state of Alabama, where a judge has approved a settlement agreement in which the Alabama Department of Corrections has agreed to stop segregating inmates with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Margaret Winter, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, compared HIV segregation to racial segregation. That seems a stretch. Among the general population, such segregation would clearly be deplorable. But given the realities of prison — sexual assaults, stabbings, and drug use involving intravenous needles — some will reasonably suspect that this settlement may actually increase the likelihood other inmates or even correctional officers will now contract HIV.
Alabama began testing inmates for HIV and segregating them in the 1980s. At that time, U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson correctly notes treatment of HIV/AIDS was far more challenging and HIV “seemed like an automatic death sentence.” The courts upheld Alabama's policy in 1990 and 1999, finding it justified “primarily based on the dangerousness of HIV infection,” Thompson noted. But in his opinion approving the settlement agreement, Thompson argues that is no longer the case.
“Today, the prognosis for a person who contracts HIV has changed drastically,” Thompson wrote. “With proper treatment, a person with HIV can live as long as one without HIV, and the danger that he will infect another is much lower.” As a result, the latest legal challenge ended in a ruling declaring the segregation policy “violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.”
Yet the fact that treatment has improved life expectancy doesn't eradicate all legitimate issues involved with HIV-positive inmates. In most cases, taxpayers must cover the cost of those treatments, which don't come cheap. In 1992, members of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' governing board debated preventative measures, including segregation, due to cost concerns associated with the medical care of inmates with HIV.