In Henderson’s Wake: HIV Discrimination in Alabama Prisons

By Avery Livingston and Lucia Hermo

Special thanks to Evette Koehler

On the Alabama Department of Corrections’ website, there is a section that lists the departments’ mission, values, and priorities. Its values include a “safe, secure, and rehabilitative environment for the inmate population,” and “the dignity of every human being.”[1] Chief among their list of priorities is “to ensure humane and constitutional conditions of incarceration in all facilities.”[2] While visiting facilities all over the state, we encountered these words proudly displayed in every lobby. The inmates that we were there to see, however, told a vastly different story. Alabama was the last state in the United States to integrate HIV positive inmates into the general prison population.[3] Until as late as 2013, HIV positive inmates were housed together at Limestone Correctional Facility, isolated and apart from the dorms that housed non-HIV positive prisoners in the same facility. The HIV positive inmates were forced to live in a sheet-metal warehouse with little protection from the elements.[4] Patients were dying from starvation because they were not being treated for symptoms such as weight loss or vomiting.[5] For this horrific treatment of inmates at Limestone, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) was sued for lack of medical care and inhumane treatment of inmates.[6] These lawsuits improved treatment of HIV inmates at Limestone, but ADOC continued to segregate HIV positive inmates from other inmates – another Alabama take on separate but equal treatment that is indefensible. In 2012, the ACLU National Prison Project and the ACLU of Alabama brought a lawsuit against The Alabama Department of Corrections, Henderson, et. al. v. Thomas, et. al., which argued that ADOC’s segregation of inmates clearly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA.[7] As a result of this lawsuit, a judicial finding of liability on behalf of ADOC, and the subsequent settlement, the ACLU of Alabama was afforded the unique opportunity to monitor ADOC’s application of the settlements’ terms from June 2014 to June 2015. Our task was to ensure that the integration went according to the agreed terms of the court order. While the nightmare that was the Limestone Special Unit ended with this settlement (literally, the building was torn down after the integration), we found that the problems of HIV discrimination and access to medical care persist in Alabama prisons. Officers, medical staff, inmates, and sometimes even wardens of facilities, treat HIV inmates as outcasts -- in ways similar to how lepers were treated throughout history. HIV positive inmates were blamed for their own plight by staff and were fearful to report incidents of harassment to wardens because of possible retaliation. One officer went so far as to tell an inmate that “incidents happen [because] you have HIV,” as if the inmate should expect such treatment merely because of his medical status. In some cases, discrimination was blatant. It was reported that officers would inform entire dorms that those with HIV were among them. Other times, guards would instruct inmates to pour bleach on the toilets to avoid contracting the virus. This went as far as inmates spraying bleach on or behind some HIV positive inmates while officers watched, unmoved. One nurse reportedly said, “Here comes another AIDS patient” when an HIV positive inmate came to her office for medical care. These comments made by ADOC staff show not only how unprofessional staff are towards the HIV-positive community, but also how ignorant corrections staff are of the virus itself and how it can and cannot be transmitted. Staff know so little about the disease that some inmates were denied the opportunity to work in the kitchens for fear of transmitting the virus to others through food. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines clearly state: “foodservice workers known to be infected with HIV need not be restricted from work unless they have other infections or illnesses, such as diarrhea or hepatitis A, for which any foodservice worker, regardless of HIV infection status, should be restricted.”[8] Some officers went as far as to inform employers and supervisors for on or off-campus jobs about an inmate’s HIV status. In many cases, this resulted in the inmate losing his or her job placement and therefore a source of income and job training. While the medical care of HIV positive inmates has surely improved from the times of the “Special Unit,” inmates consistently reported delays in receiving medical attention. Sick call requests were delayed for months and sometimes ignored completely, yet the inmate’s account was still charged for placing the sick call. At Ventress Correctional Facility, inmates reported that if someone is late to pill call or sick call on Wednesday, they were denied medication or care until the following Tuesday, because the nurse on duty does not work Thursday through Monday. For HIV positive people, keeping up with medications is crucial for maintaining one’s health, and too many missed medications could be deadly. The Henderson lawsuit forced ADOC to take steps in a positive direction to correct their obvious lack of care for a significant and vulnerable population of inmates. Whatever small strides they have made, however, discrimination against HIV positive people persists. Treatment of those with HIV in prison is a microcosm of the greater fight that HIV positive people are defending against everywhere, and we as advocates of equality and justice must raise awareness of HIV discrimination in prisons as well as in our own daily lives. Increasing awareness about HIV, AIDS, and its transmission is crucial to addressing the key issue at the source of discrimination: hatred and fear of HIV positive people. The ACLU is committed to raising this awareness and fighting for the eradication of discrimination in all its forms, but it is imperative that we as Americans stay vigilant and empathetic to the plight of people who are treated harshly simply for their medical condition. ADOC should take another look at their own mission statement and values. And we all should start caring if they follow them in the future.

[1] Alabama Department of Corrections website,[2] Id.
[3] Samira Jafari, The Associated Press, 3/13/04.[4] Carla Crowder, The Birmingham News, 8/28/03. Accessed on July 20, 2015.
[5] Id.
[6] See Leatherwood v. Campbell, No. CV-02-BE-2812-W (N.D. Ala., 2004). The Southern Center for Human Rights sued and settled, but had to file a motion of contempt a year later for inadequate compliance with the settlement terms.
[7] Second Amended Complaint, Doc. 61, Henderson v. Thomas, No. 2:11cv224 (M.D. Ala. 2012).
[8] CDC, “HIV and its transmission,” 1999.