Two unpleasant topics of conversation most of us avoid are the epidemic of HIV/AIDS among prison inmates and a variety of sometimes-violent events resulting in transmission of the disease.
Some states long ago implemented policies to protect the uninfected prison population while providing exceptional medical treatment and counseling to infected inmates.
In South Carolina, it has worked so well since 1998 that there has only been a single transmission of HIV/AIDS to a prisoner. All that may change, however, thanks to a threat from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department.
South Carolina received a letter from the department’s Civil Rights Division that the policy of keeping infected inmates at a designated facility, instead of scattered across the state in the general prison population, may unfairly stigmatize them and violate the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Justice Department objects to separate living facilities and specialized medical treatment for the HIV/AIDS prison population. Naturally, the department has threatened a lawsuit. Apparently, it has no difficulty shaking down a state with an effective and humane policy toward prisoners.
“These folks are shameless,” said John Ozmint, the no-nonsense director of the South Carolina prison system. He told me that every single new prisoner is tested for AIDS upon incarceration.
Ozmint said half those testing positive never knew they were infected. The testing policy saves lives because treatment starts immediately, at the expense of the state.
Those testing positive receive treatment at the Broad River Road correctional facility, and extensive counseling. But, they are not part of the general prison population.
South Carolina doesn’t have to do this. For starters, the state doesn’t have to test prisoners. It could simply toss infected inmates unwittingly into the general prison population.
These inmates would be scattered across 28 facilities, all without the specialized care available at the Broad River facility. All the extra counseling and treatment is optional, but provided by the state at a significant cost.
South Carolina spends more than $2 million a year on helping infected inmates in the very program that the Justice Department is challenging.
“We couldn’t ever hire specialists at all of the facilities spread across the state like we can in the single Columbia facility,” Ozmint told me.
The Justice Department is in a lose-lose situation. Even if it wins a lawsuit, sources told me that South Carolina is simply going to cancel all the special testing and treatment and save $2 million a year.
Instead, the state will dump infected prisoners into the general population and nobody will know they have AIDS. Worse, people who come to prison with HIV/AIDS will never know they have the disease and their lives will be shortened because the testing program will end. Special counseling would end too.
The Justice Department raises three primary objections to this effective and humane approach. First, it prevents infected prisoners “from participating in activities and jobs of their choosing.” Second, the department claims the South Carolina program is unconstitutional, something the courts have repeatedly rejected. Third, with all the pragmatism of a sociology lecture at Harvard University, the department argues that the separation of the HIV/AIDS prisoners “stigmatizes” them.
“This is about whether you want more AIDS or less AIDS” in the prisons, Ozmint said.
All indications are that the South Carolina Department of Corrections isn’t going to surrender an inch to the Justice Department. Officials promise to do whatever it takes to defeat the lawsuit. South Carolina may soon demonstrate to the rest of the nation that it pays to fight back.
J. Christian Adams served as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and covers election law at www.electionlawcenter.com.