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HIV Positive Inmates Seek Equality In Alabama's Prisons
Alabama Department of Corrections

Here in Alabama, prisoners with HIV are segregated from the rest of the prison population. This makes Alabama just one of two states that still does this. Prison officials say it’s for the safety of the inmates, but some prisoners say it’s unfair and a violation of privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state on behalf of prisoners to end the segregation. Alabama Public Radio’s Ryan Vasquez spoke with the man at the center of the issue... 

Ryan Vasquez: Albert Knox has H-I-V. He rattles through the pills he has to take every day as part of his therapy. Knox says he was in prison when he first learned he had the virus that causes aids.   

Albert Knox  “Which shocked me and I couldn’t believe it but that’s when I found out”

Vasquez: This was Albert’s first introduction to the very different life of a prisoner with H-I-V in Alabama.

Knox: “They put us all in segregation even though we didn’t do anything wrong and just we had our own cells. We stayed there for months at a time until they were ready to ship us to Limestone.”

Vasquez: Limestone Correctional Facility in northern Alabama is where the state houses its male H-I-V prisoners. They are sent here because Alabama is still just one of two states that isolates its H-I-V inmates from the rest of the prison population. Here, Knox and the prison’s other AIDS patients had their own dorm, ate in their own cafeteria, and served their sentences separately from the rest of the population. Knox says that wasn’t the end of it…

Knox “They have tags on us as well, it’s a white band that you can pretty much see for about a mile and everybody knows that when you see a person wearing that what you got so it’s not like you can keep a secret if you want to tell somebody that’s your business.”

Vasquez: It’s treatment like this that prompted a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Knox and the 236 HIV positive inmates in Alabama. The action alleges violation of privacy and civil rights, among other charges.  Amanda Goad is one of the ACLU’s lawyers defending the case in court. She says Alabama has given several different reasons to continue their policy of segregation.

Amanda Goad:  “They have given a security justification claiming that there would be threats of violence and unrest from the general population prisoners if there were integration; 48 states have done this. Mississippi right next door did just recently and there weren’t problems with unrest.”

Vasquez: A second reason concerns health and transmitting HIV to other inmates. Corrections was contacted repeatedly for this story to comment on this position and other, but refused interview requests. In a statement the Department says the practice of segregating prisoners is a proven system that has effectively prevented the spread of HIV - an incurable disease - within our system." Goad isn’t convinced…

Goad: “However that’s not how they handle other chronic health conditions again medicine has changed and the typical HIV positive prisoner requires medication and occasional consultations with an HIV specialist. There’s a need for health care but not so specialized that it needs to happen only in one spot.”

Kathy Hiers is CEO at AIDS Alabama which is the state’s largest AIDS service organization. Hiers was asked to testify against clustering inmates in the most recent lawsuit.

Kathy Hiers: “We’re the only state that I know of that has all 67 counties covered. We have great providers all across the state. We could actually provide better care if they weren’t all focused in just two areas of the state.”

Vasquez: Part of the concern is that there is ignorance about HIV and AIDS in this country, which patient advocates say is worse in the south. A 2011 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation took a look at public opinion on HIV and AIDs thirty years after the epidemic. Hiers says that surprisingly decades after the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic about twenty percent of the nation still didn’t understand how the virus is transmitted…

Hiers: “They still thought that you could get HIV from swimming after someone, from eating after someone. So we definitely have our work cut out for us and unfortunately as people think that the HIV epidemic is going away there seems to be less and less emphasis on this education that people so desperately need especially in the south. “

Vasquez: Meal time in prison was a problem for Albert Knox.  HIV prisoners in Alabama are not allowed to eat with other inmates. One day after a substance abuse program with inmates in the general population, the other prisoners asked Knox to have lunch with them.  Knox was let in, sat down, ate, and then headed back to his wing. Knox says it wasn’t until later that the guards started asking questions…

Knox: “They tried to find the forks the little orange spoons that they have and the plate that I ate off of and I mean the plates are stacked and all the dishes are in a little bucket so it’s impossible. I mean they tried to locate that.”

Vasquez: It took prison officials two days to decide what Albert had actually done wrong. They charged him with two violations…one was being in an unauthorized area and the other was a safety health hazard…

Knox “Well the safety health hazard one they just dropped that one because there’s no way that no one can catch it from that, but the unauthorized area one they stuck that one on me but I don’t see how they could do that because we have papers allowing us to go on that side of camp to go to class.”

Vasquez: Knox stuck to his guns but was punished for not pleading to the charge; he stayed in segregation for 35 days, lost his six months good behavior and other privileges.  All, apparently, because he had HIV. Knox says he hopes his experience can lead to change. 

Knox: “We’re not asking for anything special or anything out of the ordinary except for equal rights just like any other prisoner that’s all we ask and that’s just fair so if we win I’ll be very happy and proud.

Vasquez: All sides now await a judge’s decision which could come anytime now and put an end to what amounts to a twenty five year struggle for equality. Until then Alabama remains just one of two states that still treats its HIV prisoners different than the rest of their population. Ryan Vasquez, APR News.

Ryan Vasquez is a reporter and the former APR host of All Things Considered.
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