A federal judge on Friday ordered Alabama to stop isolating prisoners with H.I.V.
Alabama is one of two states, along with South Carolina, where H.I.V.-positive inmates are housed in separate prisons, away from other inmates, in an attempt to reduce medical costs and stop the spread of the virus, which causes AIDS.
Judge Myron H. Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama ruled in favor of a group of inmates who argued in a class-action lawsuit that they had been stigmatized and denied equal access to educational programs. The judge called the state’s policy “an unnecessary tool for preventing the transmission of H.I.V.” but “an effective one for humiliating and isolating prisoners living with the disease.”
After the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, many states, including New York, quarantined H.I.V.-positive prisoners to prevent the virus from spreading through sexual contact or through blood when inmates tattooed one another. But most states ended the practice voluntarily as powerful antiretroviral drugs reduced the risk of transmission.
In Alabama, inmates are tested for H.I.V. when they enter prison. About 250 of the state’s 26,400 inmates have tested positive. They are housed in special dormitories at two prisons: one for men and one for women. No inmates have developed AIDS, the state says.
H.I.V.-positive inmates are treated differently from those with other viruses like hepatitis B and C, which are far more infectious, according to the World Health Organization. Inmates with H.I.V. are barred from eating in the cafeteria, working around food, enrolling in certain educational programs or transferring to prisons near their families.
Prisoners have been trying to overturn the policy for more than two decades. In 1995, a federal court upheld Alabama’s policy. Inmates filed the latest lawsuit last year.
“Today’s decision is historic,” said Margaret Winter, the associate director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the inmates. “It spells an end to a segregation policy that has inflicted needless misery on Alabama prisoners with H.I.V. and their families.”
Brian Corbett, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said the state is “not prejudiced against H.I.V.-positive inmates” and has “worked hard over the years to improve their health care, living conditions and their activities.”
“We will continue our review of the court’s opinion and determine our next course of action in a timely manner,” he wrote.
During a monthlong trial in September, lawyers for the department argued that the policy improved the treatment of H.I.V.-positive inmates. Fewer doctors are needed if specialists in H.I.V. focus on 2 of the 29 state’s prisons.
The state spends an average of $22,000 per year on treating individual H.I.V.-positive inmates. The total is more than the cost of medicine for all other inmates, said Bill Lunsford, a lawyer for the Corrections Department.
South Carolina has also faced legal scrutiny. In 2010, the Justice Department notified the state that it was investigating the policy and might sue to overturn it.