JACKSON, MS - In a critical breakthrough for equal treatment of prisoners with HIV, Mississippi's top prison official today announced that educational and vocational programs will soon be available to all eligible prisoners, regardless of HIV status.
"This is a huge step forward," said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "For years, we've been fighting for basic equality for prisoners with HIV. Access to programs in Mississippi is just one piece of this -- but it will markedly improve inmates' lives."
Mississippi is one of only two states in the country that still segregates prisoners with HIV in both housing and programs. Because participating in programs can often shorten a prisoner's sentence or help his or her parole chances, segregation has resulted in HIV-positive prisoners serving longer sentences than their HIV-negative peers.
A man with HIV who spent two years in a Mississippi prison before being released late last year welcomed today's announcement. "This is an outstanding move," said the man, identified only as "Jesse" because he fears losing his job if his HIV status was known. "Not being allowed to attend the vocational programs afforded all other prisoners puts a lot of anxiety and physical and emotional obstacles on us, and makes it much harder to get a job when we get out. This change means opportunity for offenders as they return to society."
The ACLU began working with inmates in Mississippi's Parchman State Prison's Unit 28 -- the segregated area for male prisoners with HIV -- in 1998. At that time, prisoners were not receiving standard medication for HIV and were endangered by living conditions that included rats and vermin, human feces and extreme heat.
"This is a matter of basic justice and fairness. Conditions for prison inmates with HIV here have been both separate and unequal," said Jane Hicks, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Mississippi. "While litigation has begun to improve some of the other living conditions for these inmates, notably their access to medical care, we're hopeful now that inequality in programs will be eradicated."
Litigation on behalf of Mississippi inmates with HIV continues, but the ACLU has sought to end the segregation policy through negotiations outside the courtroom. Local activists, inmates' families and the ACLU formed a coalition to help persuade Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Robert L. Johnson to appoint a state HIV/AIDS Inmate Program Access Task Force last year.
Today, Johnson announced that he will begin implementing all of the Task Force's recommendations, including:
• Gradual integration of inmates with HIV into educational and vocational programs;
• A new policy that initial classification for level "A" custody (which affords the highest level of privileges and lowest level of security) not be based solely on HIV status or other disabilities;
• Immediate training on HIV transmission, treatment and prevention for prison staff and inmates directly affected by integration;
• Training on HIV issues for all prison inmates and MDOC staff within two years.
Winter said the ACLU looks forward to helping ensure a smooth transition into integrated programs and continuing its work to protect the constitutional rights of prison inmates with HIV. Last week, the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld an earlier decision that the ACLU will represent Mississippi prisoners with HIV in class-action litigation. That decision caps years of dispute over whether the prisoners could choose their own legal representation -- and will now allow the ACLU to move forward on their behalf, Winter said.
Currently, male Mississippi inmates with HIV cannot enroll in any of the 15 vocational programs available to other prisoners. These include training in a variety of skills. Female inmates with HIV are only allowed access to one of five vocational programs offered to the general population of female inmates. Male inmates with HIV are in segregated educational programs that are not broken down by skill level, which slows the learning of the entire group.
Pre-release courses and discharge planning can have a significant effect on prisoners' ability to reintegrate into the community after release, and to avoid returning to prison. Currently, female HIV-positive prisoners are completely prohibited from participating in such programs, and male HIV-positive prisoners only have access to an extremely limited program.
In addition, inmates with HIV are not treated equally when receiving initial custody classifications that determine their level of security, access to privileges, access to religious services, frequency of visitors and type of uniform. Currently, prisoners must be HIV-negative to be eligible for initial classification as "A Custody," the highest level classification.
Mississippi inmates with HIV/AIDS are also prohibited from participating in Regimented Inmate Discipline, a "boot camp" style program that can drastically shorten inmates' sentences. The task force has recommended that this prohibition receive further study.
"It is critical that these changes be implemented because the state has an obligation to provide equal access to programs -- and also because segregated programs open the door to creating sub-standard conditions, care and programs for people with HIV," Winter said.
People with HIV represent 1.2 percent of the population in Mississippi Department of Corrections prisons. As of January, there were 218 inmates with HIV in Mississippi prisons. In 1985, 38 state prison systems segregated all inmates with HIV, and another eight segregated inmates with asymptomatic HIV. Today, only Alabama and Mississippi maintain complete segregation in housing and programs for HIV-positive inmates. (South Carolina prisons have segregated housing, but inmates are permitted access to programs). There is no evidence that segregating prisoners with HIV reduces the transmission of HIV within prisons.