(New York) - South Carolina should stop segregating HIV-positive prisoners from the rest of the prison population, a policy that promotes stigma and discrimination, Human Rights Watch said today. The US Department of Justice, in a letter to South Carolina prison officials that came to light this week, threatened legal action unless prisoners with HIV are provided housing, prison job programs, and work release opportunities on an equal basis with other prisoners.
The Justice Department letter, dated June 22, 2010, also criticized medical and mental health care for to the state's HIV-positive prisoners. It came two months after Human Rights Watch and the ACLU issued "Sentenced to Stigma," a report documenting the harmful consequences of Alabama's and South Carolina's segregation of prisoners with HIV. They are the only states that separate these prisoners from the general prison population as a matter of policy.
"Prison officials in South Carolina defend their segregation policy as necessary to protect the prisoners' health, but they are wrong," said Megan McLemore, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch. "There is no medical justification for the policy, which promotes stigma, perpetuates misinformation about HIV, violates medical privacy, and restricts prisoners' ability to participate in prison programs."
National and international guidelines on correctional health call for integration of prisoners living with HIV into the general prison population.
In South Carolina, all HIV-positive prisoners - regardless of the severity of their offense - are housed at Broad River facility for men or Camille Graham prison for women, both maximum security prisons that also house death row prisoners. Assigned to a high-security facility without regard to criminal background and denied the ability to transfer to pre-release and re-entry programs at other units, prisoners with HIV serve longer sentences, under the harsher conditions inside maximum security facilities, than prisoners who are not HIV-positive.
Prisoners living with HIV are barred from numerous prison jobs that earn extra work credits that apply toward early release. South Carolina is the only state in the union to prohibit HIV-positive prisoners from participating in work-release programs.
"Keeping people living with HIV in prison longer and limiting their chances for successful re-entry is not only discriminatory, it is bad policy and costly to the state," McLemore said.
In their report, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU documented the mental suffering of prisoners with HIV who are subjected to forced HIV testing and then identified by their status. Prisoners spoke of how family members and friends discovered their HIV status through their prison housing assignment, in many cases because fellow prisoners would reveal it, leading to anguished letters from family members who had been unaware of the prisoner's status.
"Justice Department intervention is a critical step toward achieving equality for prisoners living with HIV in South Carolina," McLemore said. "It is time for South Carolina to adopt prison policies that reflect science and the law, not bigotry and bias."