VICTORY! Michigan Department of Corrections to Amend Policies for Incarcerated People Living With HIV

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November 14, 2018
Lambda Legal client John Dorn.

Lambda Legal and Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service (MPAS) today announced the successful settlement of a 2015 lawsuit filed on behalf of John Dorn against the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). The lawsuit was filed after Mr. Dorn was disciplined far more severely than another incarcerated man based solely on his HIV status, which was in violation of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.

After Mr. Dorn and the other man were accused of engaging in consensual sexual activity, Mr. Dorn was immediately taken from the lowest-level security facility to the highest and placed in solitary confinement where he remained for more than 21 months, whereas the HIV-negative person was given only a 30-day loss of privileges.

Mr. Dorn’s settlement with the MDOC includes substantive changes to the MDOC policy directive that allowed disproportionate punishment of incarcerated people living with HIV without adequate justification, an MDOC review and reconsideration of other individuals who were classified to administrative segregation under the former policy, and a monetary settlement of $150,000.

“While this outcome has taken many years to achieve, it was worth the fight, I lost over 21 months of my life to solitary confinement for no good reason because of the prior MDOC policy directive. No human being should have to endure that type of punishment. In my case, the directive that led to nearly two years of isolation was based on old science.

"It was also based on a presumption that did not consider the actual risk of transmission. I am proud that I survived to tell my story.  I am also satisfied that I was able to fight for changes in the system that will help other incarcerated people living with HIV in Michigan not experience what I, and others, have,” said Dorn.

“Today’s settlement sends a strong message that state departments of corrections that have policies singling out incarcerated people living with HIV must comply with federal disability law. Under the settlement, the MDOC must certify whether the prisoner’s behavior presented a significant risk of HIV transmission.

"We are pleased with the outcome, not only for Mr. Dorn, but also for other incarcerated people living with HIV in MDOC custody,” stated Lambda Legal Senior Attorney and Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist Richard Saenz.

“Advocating for and protecting the legal rights of people with disabilities in Michigan is the state-designated work of the Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service,” said Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service Staff Attorney Chris Davis.

“No one’s HIV status should result in policy decisions and draconian punishments predicated on outdated information and science. We worked for many years with Lambda Legal on behalf of Mr. Dorn and are pleased that we have been able to get this discriminatory and outdated policy changed.”

“Updating corrections policies to include the latest science about HIV and its transmission are an important step in the ongoing work of de-stigmatizing HIV. Like state laws that unjustifiably criminalize the sex lives of people living with HIV, these policies in correctional settings have not kept up with the science and the benefits of consistent medical treatment, which makes it impossible to transmit HIV.  Changes to these outdated laws and policies are critical, and Lambda Legal will continue to fight for these changes through the courts and legislatures all across the country,” said Lambda Legal Counsel and HIV Project Director Scott Schoettes.

Background:

In 2015, Lambda Legal and Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Dorn for declaratory relief, injunctive relief and money damages.  After the Court granted in part Defendants’ motion to dismiss in June 2017, Lambda Legal and MPAS sought reconsideration of the decision in August of the same year.  In April 2018, the Court granted in part the motion for reconsideration and reinstated the Rehabilitation Act claim on which this settlement is based.

In addition to Richard Saenz, Scott Schoettes, and Chris Davis, John Dorn was also represented by Lambda Legal’s Kara Ingelhart and Anthony Pinggera.