Mississippi Stops Segregating Prisoners With HIV

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Will Matthews, ACLU, (212) 549-2582 or 2666; media@aclu.org;
Megan McLemore, Human Rights Watch, (212) 216-1259 or (646) 784-4827; mclemom@hrw.org

Mississippi Stops Segregating Prisoners With HIV

Alabama And South Carolina Last States To Maintain Discriminatory Policy After Advocacy By ACLU And Human Rights Watch

JACKSON, MS - The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has
agreed to end the segregation of prisoners with HIV, a longstanding
discriminatory policy that has prevented prisoners from accessing key
resources that facilitate their successful transition back into the
community.

The decision by Mississippi’s corrections
commissioner Christopher Epps, prompted by recent advocacy by the
American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, leaves Alabama
and South Carolina as the only states in the nation that segregate
prisoners based on their HIV status. Epps made the decision ahead of a
forthcoming report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch analyzing the
harmful impact segregation policies have had in the three states.

“Commissioner Epps deserves a tremendous amount
of credit for making this courageous decision to replace a policy based
on irrational HIV prejudice with a policy based on science, sound
correctional practice and respect for human rights,” said Margaret
Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “The
remaining segregation policies in South Carolina and Alabama are a
remnant of the early days of the HIV epidemic and continue to stigmatize
prisoners and inflict them and their families with a tremendous amount
of needless suffering.”

Public and correctional health experts agree that
there is no medical basis for segregating HIV-positive prisoners within
correctional facilities or for limiting access to jobs, vocational
training and educational programs available to others. Since 1987,
however, MDOC has performed mandatory HIV tests on all prisoners
entering the state prison system, and has permanently housed all male
prisoners who test positive in a segregated unit at the Mississippi
State Penitentiary, the state’s highest security prison. As a result,
prisoners with HIV have been faced with unjustified isolation, exclusion
and marginalization, and low-custody prisoners have been forced
unnecessarily to serve their sentences in more violent, more expensive
prisons.

The change in policy will enable prisoners with
HIV to participate in jobs, training programs and other services to
which they were previously denied access because of their HIV status and
which are designed to prepare prisoners for a productive return to
society. Prisoners with HIV will now be able to participate in kitchen
work, for example, which can be beneficial to them in many ways. Many
prisoners worked in kitchens, cafes or restaurants prior to their
incarceration, and continued employment in that area can help them upon
re-entry into the workforce. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control, there is no medical basis for preventing persons with HIV from
working in kitchens or other food service employment. 

Additionally, prisoners with HIV will no longer
be assigned to a segregated HIV unit, which resulted in the public
disclosure of their HIV status and left them at risk of being ostracized
and subjected to hostility and violence at the hands of other
prisoners. Epps said he will phase in the new desegregation policy
gradually for prisoners currently housed in the HIV unit, and will form a
committee to make individualized placement decisions for these
prisoners. Starting immediately, incoming prisoners will be housed using
only criteria set out in the state classification plan such as criminal
history, length of sentence and other factors unrelated to their HIV
status.

“Prisoners with HIV were often forced to live in
cruel, inhumane and degrading conditions, and we’re delighted that
Mississippi has changed its policy,” said Megan McLemore, health
researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Integrating prisoners with HIV is the
norm across the United States and MDOC deserves significant credit for
making this decision.”

Mississippi’s decision to change its segregation
policy to comply with civil and human rights standards is the latest in a
series of reforms prompted by ongoing dialogue between the ACLU, Human
Rights Watch and MDOC officials. In 2001, based on the recommendations
of a task force convened by the MDOC commissioner and comprised of MDOC
security staff, public health officials, ACLU staff and other HIV
advocates, MDOC ended its policy of excluding prisoners with HIV from
in-prison vocational, educational and religious programs. And in 2004,
as a result of a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of all
Mississippi prisoners with HIV, MDOC ended its policy of excluding
prisoners with HIV from the state’s work release and community
corrections programs.

Additional information about the ACLU National
Prison Project is available online at: www.aclu.org/prison

Additional information about Human Rights Watch
is available online at: www.hrw.org

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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