HIV-positive prisoners in two southern states, Alabama and South Carolina, face daily stigma and harassment because of their status. According to an April joint report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, titled “Sentenced to Stigma,” inmates in HIV units are forced to wear armbands or other indicators of their status. They are also denied equal participation in prison jobs and programs that might facilitate their re-entry back into their communities. Additionally, they must even worship separately from other prisoners. The other 48 states have abandoned this practice, first popular in many correctional facilities nationwide when AIDS first burst on the scene in the 1980s. As the last holdouts, Alabama and South Carolina maintain a stance suggestive of the scarlet letter worn by the heroine of Hawthorne’s novel of that name.
Corrections officials in both Alabama and South Carolina claim that segregation is needed to provide medical care and to prevent HIV transmission. But as “Sentenced to Stigma” notes, there are other ways to meet these goals. It points out, for example, that the Federal Bureau of Prisons provides medical care for HIV prisoners without resorting to segregation. In addition, the World Health Organization and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care agree that there is no medical basis for the separation, nor for limiting access to jobs, education or vocational programs available to others. Similarly, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that no medical basis exists for precluding persons with HIV from kitchen and food service employment in prisons.
The report also underscores the mental suffering that results when other prisoners send news to their home communities of the HIV status of fellow prisoners–news that can spread in a destructive manner. The result can be tormenting for family members unaware of their loved ones’ heath situation or their severe restrictions. This past March, Mississippi abandoned the segregation policy it too had followed. Now it is time for Alabama and South Carolina to follow suit and abandon theirs.
George Anderson, S.J.