COLUMBIA — The federal government on Tuesday settled a dispute with South Carolina’s prisons over a policy segregating HIV-positive inmates, making the state the last in the nation to formally take steps to end such a practice.
The settlement follows the Corrections Department’s July announcement it would stop the practice. At that time, officials gave no date for that process to begin, and agency Clark Newsom said Tuesday the department is in the process of training and educating staff.
South Carolina had been one of two states that separated HIV-positive inmates. Last year, a judge struck down a similar policy in Alabama following a lawsuit by several inmates supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The federal government had been preparing a complaint accusing the agency of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by denying its 350 HIV-positive inmates the opportunity to participate in certain programs and activities, like drug treatment, food preparation and work release. Officials said inmates live in special dorms and wear special clothing and badges to indicate to staff, visitors and other inmates that they are HIV-positive.
“The otherwise confidential HIV status of inmates with HIV is therefore affirmatively publicized to all staff, visitors, other inmates and members of the public,” government attorneys said in court documents.
An agreement filed Tuesday in federal court lays out no precise timetable for integration but does note that no special classifications should apply to HIV-positive inmates. Corrections employees must also do training with health officials within 30 days of the agreement being filed.
After that training is done, and no later than Nov. 15, inmates should be classified without regard to their HIV status. Inmates with HIV are also to be given the choice if they want to integrate into the general prison population, according to the agreement.
South Carolina had been preparing for a lawsuit after a 2010 U.S. Justice Department deadline to get rid of the segregation policy expired. The ACLU had already levied criticism against South Carolina and Alabama, saying officials should give prisoners condoms and syringes to slow the spread of AIDS but should house all inmates together.
South Carolina corrections officials offered a compromise that would also allow infected inmates to attend work-release programs, but then-director Jon Ozmint said DOJ shot it down. No lawsuit was ever filed, and Corrections officials began working on ways to improve the situation.
In the mid-1980s, 46 of the nation’s 51 prison systems housed HIV-positive prisoners separately from the general population, but most have since stopped. In May 2010, Mississippi stopped segregating its 152 HIV-positive inmates, sending them to prisons around the state.