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Federal Court Orders Mississippi to Desegregate HIV+ Prisoners

Federal Court Orders Mississippi to
Desegregate HIV+ Prisoners

by Matthew T. Clarke

On June 7, 2004, a federal district court in Greenville, Mississippi, ordered the Mississippi Department of Corrections (DOC) to cease excluding HIV+ prisoners from being housed in a Community Work Center (CWC), ending Mississippi's policy of total segregation of HIV+ prisoners.

As of March 28, 2004, the DOC incarcerated 238 HIV+ prisoners, the vast majority of them male. All male HIV+ prisoners have been housed at Unit 28 of the maximum-security state prison in Parchman, regardless of their offense or other classification factors. Likewise, all HIV+ female prisoners, about 30, have been housed at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County. None of the HIV+ prisoners have been allowed to participate in community work programs.

Prior to September 2001, HIV+ prisoners were not allowed to participate in educational or vocational programs. At that time, the DOC adopted the recommendations of a task force that studied the issue of HIV+ prisoners' access to in-prison programs and issued a report in 2000 recommending that HIV+ prisoners be allowed to participate in vocational and educational programs. This was the first step in breaking down the discrimination against HIV+ prisoners in Mississippi.

ACLU Nation Prison Project Associate Director and lead plaintiffs' attorney Margaret Winters called the ruling of U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis a "wonderful victory." She said that HIV+ prisoners will now be admitted to CWCs on the same basis as other prisoners, without consideration of their HIV+ status. DOC Commissioner Chris Epps agreed, saying that the issue will now be whether the prisoner can meet the rigid criteria to CWC housing, including the requirement that the conviction be for a non-violent crime.

In a June 28, 2004, hearing the plaintiffs showed evidence that DOC officials had failed to prevent an outbreak of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a highly-contagious, difficult-to-treat, serious infection which can be fatal and leave life-long damage even in persons without compromised immune systems. During a visit to Unit 28, former Chief Medical Officer for the New York Department of Corrections Dr. Robert B. Greifinger, discovered numerous cases of MRSA. He also diagnosed a prisoner "with dozens and dozens of weeping lesions all over his torso and limbs" as likely suffering from MRSA. That prisoner's condition was known to the prison's medical staff, but they had never taken a culture from the lesions to determine whether it was MRSA. James J. Balsam, an environmental health and safety expert, inspected Unit 28 in March 2004, and discovered that poor laundry operations and the failure of the prison to provide cleansing and sanitation supplies contributed to the spread of MRSA and the creating of "a very real and serious threat to the life, health, and safety" of the HIV+ prisoners housed there. Thus, the agreement on CWCs does not terminate the suit, which continues on the issues of inadequate living conditions and medical care at the HIV+ prisoners' units. See: Gates v. Barbour , No. 4:71CV6-JA.D, consolidated with Moore v. Fordice , No. 4:90CV125-JAD (USDC NDMS).

Additional Sources: ACLU Press Releases; Mississippi Clarion-Ledger .

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Related legal cases

Gates v. Barbour

Moore v. Fordice