COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina's prisons are ending a policy of segregating HIV-positive inmates, officials said Wednesday.
Corrections Department director Bill Byars told The Associated Press that his department is making the change as part of an overhaul of the agency's health services.
South Carolina currently has 366 HIV-positive inmates in two Columbia institutions, Byars said, and no date for officially integrating them into the general prison population has been set.
"Our medical staff has examined all facets of this issue, and we believe it is safe to make a change in our current policy," Byars said.
South Carolina has been one of two remaining states that still separated HIV-positive inmates. Several inmates backed by the American Civil Liberties Union sued Alabama, where a judge struck down the policy last year on the basis it violates federal disabilities law.
It wasn't immediately clear Wednesday if Alabama's HIV-positive inmates had been integrated into the state's general population or if that process was still ongoing. A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately return a message Wednesday.
South Carolina had been preparing for a lawsuit of its own after a 2010 deadline set by the U.S. Justice Department to get rid of the segregation policy expired. The ACLU had already levied criticism against South Carolina, along with 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 had offered a compromise that would also allow infected inmates to attend work-release programs, but then-director Jon Ozmint said DOJ shot down that proposal. No lawsuit was ever filed, and Byars - who took over Corrections from Ozmint in 2011 - said his department has been working gradually ever since to address the situation.
ACLU officials lauded South Carolina's decision.
"HIV ghettos became a shameful fixture in U.S. prisons during the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially in the Deep South," Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a news release. "Today, South Carolina closes a discriminatory chapter in U.S. history, one that was driven by ignorance, fear and bias."
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.