(Jackson) - The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has agreed to end the segregation of prisoners with HIV, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said today. This longstanding discriminatory policy, reversed after two decades of advocacy by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and others, prevented prisoners from accessing key resources that facilitate their successful transition back into the community.
The decision by Mississippi's corrections commissioner Christopher Epps, prompted by recent advocacy by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, leaves Alabama and South Carolina as the only states in the nation that segregate prisoners based on their HIV status. Epps made the decision ahead of a forthcoming report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch analyzing the harmful impact segregation policies have had in the three states.
"Commissioner Epps deserves a tremendous amount of credit for making this courageous decision to replace a policy based on irrational HIV prejudice with a policy based on science, sound correctional practice, and respect for human rights," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. "The remaining segregation policies in South Carolina and Alabama are a remnant of the early days of the HIV epidemic and continue to stigmatize prisoners and inflict them and their families with a tremendous amount of needless suffering."
Public and correctional health experts agree that there is no medical basis for segregating HIV-positive prisoners within correctional facilities or for limiting access to jobs, vocational training and educational programs available to others. Since 1987, however, MDOC has performed mandatory HIV tests on all prisoners entering the state prison system, and has permanently housed all male prisoners who test positive in a segregated unit at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the state's highest security prison. As a result, prisoners with HIV have been faced with unjustified isolation, exclusion, and marginalization, and low-custody prisoners have been forced unnecessarily to serve their sentences in more violent, more expensive prisons.
The change in policy will enable prisoners with HIV to participate in jobs, training programs, and other services to which they were previously denied access because of their HIV status and which are designed to prepare prisoners for a productive return to society. Prisoners with HIV will now be able to participate in kitchen work, for example, which can be beneficial to them in many ways. Many prisoners worked in kitchens, cafes, or restaurants prior to their incarceration, and continued employment in that area can help them upon re-entry. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, there is no medical basis for preventing persons with HIV from working in kitchens or other food service employment.
Additionally, prisoners with HIV will no longer be assigned to a segregated HIV unit, which resulted in the public disclosure of their HIV status and left them at risk of being ostracized and subjected to hostility and violence at the hands of other prisoners. Epps said he will phase in the new desegregation policy gradually for prisoners currently housed in the HIV unit, and will form a committee to make individualized placement decisions for these prisoners. Starting immediately, incoming prisoners will be housed using only criteria set out in the state classification plan such as criminal history, length of sentence and other factors unrelated to their HIV status.
"Prisoners with HIV were often forced to live in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions, and we're delighted that Mississippi has changed its policy," said Megan McLemore, health researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Integrating prisoners with HIV is the norm across the United States and MDOC deserves significant credit for making this decision."
Mississippi's decision to change its segregation policy to comply with civil and human rights standards is the latest in a series of reforms prompted by ongoing dialogue between the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and MDOC officials. In 2001, based on the recommendations of a task force convened by the MDOC commissioner and comprised of MDOC security staff, public health officials, ACLU staff, and other HIV advocates, MDOC ended its policy of excluding prisoners with HIV from in-prison vocational, educational and religious programs. And in 2004, as a result of a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of all Mississippi prisoners with HIV, MDOC ended its policy of excluding prisoners with HIV from the state's work release and community corrections programs.