HIV Segregation in South Carolina and Alabama Prisons

I read this article about the Obama administration’s plan to sue the correctional authorities of South Carolina and Alabama for keeping HIV positive prisoners in a separate area of the prison (interestingly, all the other states have gotten rid of segregation for HIV positive prisoners).

This article that I referenced is a good on to read, not for its arguments about the issue itself, its treatment of substantive issue is pretty superficial, but because it gives one a good idea of how much controversy this is kicking up despite the fact that its just a hard issue, for any president and for any political party. Apparently some right wing nutcases are accusing Obama of trying to spread AIDS with this policy, while those on the left, and there are equally screwballs there, are denouncing the policy with pretty strong language, assuming the liberal position to be correct.

In reality, it seems that there are some really hard, ethical, medical, and constitutional issues.

Here’s how I understand things. A lot of people who go through prison have diseases at greater frequencies than the average population. They have AIDS and various types of hepatitis for example (and interestingly, this is a another side effect of our silly drug war which puts a bunch of needle users in close proximity to each other. Brilliant.) Also, the chances of transmission are high in prison. As we know from TV and other crude jokes, sexual contact can be rough in prison, and it can be coercive and not safe to say the least. There is also needle sharing as well as tattooing which can further spread disease.

South Caroline and Alabama have responded to this by keeping HIV positive prisoners together in prison. Now this raises a bunch of problems right away.  First, is such segregation constitutional? And does it violate certain U.S. human rights commitments? I don’t really think so. The ACLU, in this report, make claims like this, and sadly, I think some of them are a little deceptive.

Can prisons segregate inmates? I’m no constitutional scholar, but i know that this issue was debated at the supreme court in the context of a California policy which racially separated inmates for their safety (gangs formed on racial lines would go after each other). Here too, I think there is an argument that segregation is for the safety of the inmates and so could be justified.That does not mean that the policies of S. Carolina and Alabama as they currently exist are justified. The report I referenced discusses some pretty cruel, discriminatory, and traumatizing practices, but again, I wonder if this is just endemic to a prison system that no one realizes houses real human beings. This is partly why I think this report is a little deceptive. Yes, the report quotes many inmates discussing how segregation affects them, but really, it seems like their stories are just indicative of how PRISONS traumatize people, which is really unfortunate, but not something that would be remedied by not segregating prisoners with HIV. Now, there are other real issues like prisoners with HIV get prevented from getting prison jobs, which are critical to getting parole and better treatment within the prison. This is just straight discrimination.

Also, there is an issue of whether its fair to require disease testing for prisoners as this violates their confidentiality. Hmmm really? I’m pretty liberal, so I’m susceptible to this point, but seriously, how extreme to you have to be to see that there could be good reason to force prisoners to submit to some medical tests when coming into prison, where the government is trying to keep a bunch of dangerous people in close quarters. Also, there are probably ways that confidentiality could be preserved without giving up the segregation policy.

Still, we come to the million dollar question: how effective is segregation at preventing the spread of HIV? Well, the ACLU claims the jury is still out. SERIOUSLY? After all that, the ACLU does not have clear evidence that segregation is medically ineffective at reducing HIV spread? Hmm, that bothers me a little bit. In its place the ACLU suggests various harm reduction methods like clean needle distribution (in prisons?) as well as condom distribution and voluntary HIV counseling. I’m sure all that is effective to a degree, but is it AS EFFECTIVE as segregation of HIV positive prisoners? It seems hard to support that claim and why should we not do all we can to protect other prisoners. If one prisoner rapes another and passes HIV to that person, that seems like a huge problem and its probably not enough to just be distributing condoms.

Still, I don’t really know what to think about this issue. The main critic of segregation (the ACLU) seems to have neglected the most important part of the argument, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right, it just means the jury is out. In the meantime, I guardedly think that segregation is permissible. Of course as implemented, they are probably pretty abusive, but this would be a reason to fund prisons better and watch out for conditions at them more closely, not get rid of segregation.

Like I said, I’m interested in seeing what else goes down in this debate/lawsuit, but the rhetoric being used to describe this case is way out of proportion to how difficult it is.


1 Response to “HIV Segregation in South Carolina and Alabama Prisons”

  1. 1 Max Downing
    August 17, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Interesting conversation. The brazen, blaring elephant in me is outraged that this is even an issue at all. Who really cares if prisoners are segregated because they made poor life choices? Is it not a good idea to remove such a volatile variable from an environment that could turn someone who is working hard to redeem him/herself into a threat to those around him/her? I mean, cruel and discriminatory? Could you not apply those same descriptive adjectives to the precise conduct the inmates themselves have displayed earning their incarceration? And about the confidentiality of a prisoners medical report, PLEASE. Institutions far less controversial require similar testing.. I mean, is that so different from a screening drug test for a job application? Would you rather the inmates roam freely with God knows what coursing through their veins?

    Meanwhile, the boisterous, brotherly donkey cries outrage at such treatment, braying: “Inhumane! Unethical!” and “Unconstitutional!”. What about the prisoner who was wrongfully accused? (This one raises a whole other set of questions about our legal system) Prisoners are still people too! Everyone can change, we just need the right process to help them!

    For me, in the end, I think it comes down to a matter of triage. Apply the tourniquet, stop the bleeding. If not, I don’t find it far fetched to believe we’ll have a 100% HIV positive among inmates nationwide before long. Hypothetically assuming that will be true, then what about the prisoners who succeed in rehabilitation?

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