MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A judge struck down Alabama's decades-old policy of segregating prison inmates with HIV, ruling Friday that it violates federal disabilities law.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in favor of inmates who sued to end the longstanding practice and said he would give the state and inmate attorneys time to propose a way to bring state prisons into compliance with his order.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven HIV-positive inmates, called the decision "historic."
Prisons Commissioner Kim Thomas issued a statement saying corrections officials were still studying the ruling and had not decided "our next course of action.
But he said the department "is very disappointed with the conclusions and characterizations reached by the Court."
"The men and women of the ADOC are not prejudiced against HIV-positive inmates, and have worked hard over the years to improve their health care, living conditions, and their activities," Thomas said. "The ADOC remains committed to providing appropriate housing for all of its inmates, including the HIV-positive population, ensuring that these inmates receive a constitutional level of medical care and that the correctional system in Alabama does not further contribute to the current HIV epidemic in our State."
Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that segregate HIV-positive prisoners. The class-action lawsuit accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It spells an end to a segregation policy that has inflicted needless misery on Alabama prisoners with HIV and their families," said ACLU attorney Margaret Winter, who was lead counsel for the plaintiffs during a monthlong trial.
Neither the lawsuit or the judge's ruling mentions South Carolina, but Winter said she hoped it helped end that state's practice.
"A judge considering a similar case in South Carolina would almost certainly give this ruling significant weight, but would not be required to follow it. We hope this opinion will influence South Carolina to abandon its policy," Winter said.
In his opinion, the judge recounted the history of the AIDS scare in the 1980s and noted the extreme rarity of HIV being transmitted by any means other than the sharing of bodily fluids, particularly during unprotected sex between males or between a man and a woman.
"It is not transmitted through casual contact or through the food supply," he wrote. "A person would have to drink a 55-gallon drum of saliva in order for it to potentially result in a transmission. There is no documented case of HIV being sexually transmitted between women."
The prison system had asked Thompson to dismiss the plaintiff's claims, saying the issue had been decided in an earlier lawsuit. But Thompson wrote that circumstances have changed since that ruling and HIV "is no longer inevitably fatal."
Alabama's policy resulted from a "panic" over AIDS in prisons, Thompson wrote. While other states have ended similar practices, Alabama hasn't because of "outdated and unsupported assumptions about HIV and the prison system's ability to deal with HIV-positive prisoners."
Bias from agency leaders is at the heart of the plan to segregate infected inmates, the judge said. He still must decide a part of the suit involving work-release inmates.
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham contributed to this report.