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Alabama: Settlement to Integrate HIV-Positive Prisoners Finalized

Alabama: Settlement to Integrate HIV-Positive Prisoners Finalized

by David M. Reutter

An Alabama federal district court has approved a settlement that integrates HIV-positive prisoners into the state prison system’s general population, finding it “fair, adequate, and reasonable.” The change in the status of HIV-positive prisoners came after decades of litigation on that issue. According to the settlement, full implementation of the agreement was to be completed by November 1, 2014.

Soon after the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) began testing prisoners for HIV in the late 1980s, it segregated those who tested positive and designated their HIV status by making them wear armbands. Legal challenges resulted in a federal district court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upholding that policy. [See: PLN, April 2000, p.14].

In 2011, the ACLU of Alabama sued the ADOC to end the practice of segregating and discriminating against prisoners with HIV. In a December 21, 2012 order, the district court recognized the “changing medical reality for people with HIV,” and held the ADOC’s policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court urged the parties to reach a settlement. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.24].

A remedial plan began to develop in early 2013 and the parties entered into mediation. By July 2013, a settlement was reached with a primary agreement enforceable in federal court and a private agreement enforceable in state court. The federal court preliminarily approved the settlement. After holding fairness hearings in which 10 prisoners testified at the Limestone Correctional Facility (LCF) and Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women on September 26, 2013, the court entered an order approving the settlement agreement four days later.

First, the settlement requires discontinuation of separate housing for HIV-positive prisoners. It also lists nearly five pages of “rules, polices, protocols, regulations, and standard operating procedures” that the ADOC has to revise or eliminate.

An Acute Care Unit must be maintained at LCF. State prison officials also agreed to “cease the practice of isolating newly-diagnosed HIV-positive” prisoners. Training for both staff and prisoners on HIV issues and relevant policies must be provided.

With HIV-positive prisoners being transferred to other prisons, telemedicine units are being installed at those facilities “for the delivery of HIV-specific consultation.” Another change is that HIV-positive prisoners will be “uniformly” entitled to work release opportunities that are available to other prisoners. The agreement also provides for abolishment of the ADOC’s most discriminatory practice: Prison officials cannot use armbands as a “direct or indirect means of disclosure of any inmate’s HIV positive status.”

When the attorneys in the class-action suit moved for fees in January 2013, they sought $2.1 million in attorney fees and $248,230 in costs. The settlement agreement provides for fees and costs totaling $1.3 million, which is a 44% reduction. Absent the agreement, the district court said it would not have agreed to such a drastic reduction; it noted the attorneys took on a case with the stigma of HIV, the stigma attached to prison reform litigation and a consensus among many attorneys that res judicata applied to the claims due to the prior ruling by the Eleventh Circuit. Nonetheless, class counsel prevailed.

The district court acknowledged the settlement was “by no means perfect,” but said it “will nonetheless make a large difference for the members of the class.”

“[W]e’ve been waiting for this for a long time. We’ve talked about it over years,” testified class representative Dana Harley. “And just being able to be looked at as an individual and not based on where I live or where I sleep or where I work due to my HIV status, that’s a big change.”

The ACLU was pleased with the change, too. “Commissioner [Kim] Thomas issued directives to every single security staff member throughout the state and to all prisoners throughout the state that the department will have a policy of zero tolerance of violence or abuse or deliberate violations of confidentiality of prisoners with HIV,” said ACLU attorney Margaret Winter.

The case remains pending, with class counsel filing a motion on July 9, 2015 seeking an award of $145,026.50 in attorney fees and $6,140.66 in costs incurred since the district court approved the settlement. A phone conference concerning the fee motion and whether the case can now be dismissed due to compliance by the ADOC is scheduled for September 2015. See: Henderson v. Dunn, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:11-cv-00224-MHT-WC.

According to the ACLU, Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi were the last three states to segregate HIV-positive prisoners. South Carolina ended its HIV segregation policy as of January 1, 2014; Mississippi had discontinued a similar policy in 2010.

Additional sources:, CNN


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Related legal case

Henderson v. Dunn