High Court Refuses Appeal by HIV+ Inmates Segregated in Alabama Prisons

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Decision flouting sound medical and public health information is allowed to stand
January 18, 2000

(NEW YORK, January 18, 2000) — Against the advice of national public health groups, the United States Supreme Court has declined to hear a case brought by HIV-positive inmates challenging their complete segregation by Alabama prison officials, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Tuesday.

Without comment, the justices denied certiorari in Davis v. Hopper, an appeal of an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which held that the segregation of prisoners with HIV from other inmates residentially and in classrooms, workplaces and all other programs did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lambda filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 10 public health groups and physicians supporting the American Civil Liberties Union Prisoner’s Rights Project in seeking review of the 11th Circuit ruling, which flouts sound medical and public health information regarding the transmission of HIV.

Catherine A. Hanssens, director of Lambda’s AIDS Project and co-author of the amicus brief said, “It’s unsettling that no one with the power to influence Alabama’s prison policy – including the Alabama legislature and all branches of the federal government – is willing to address this total undermining of the ADA’s language and intent.”

In declining to review the case, however, the High Court neither approved the Alabama policy nor set a national precedent, only indicating that it is not yet ready to rule on the issues raised by the case. Segregation of inmates with HIV has been condemned by the National Commission on AIDS, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons as having absolutely no legitimate basis in public health.

Lambda Staff Attorney Stephen R. Scarborough, also co-author of the brief, said, “The policy excludes inmates from scores of opportunities for work and drug treatment programs that affect how much time they serve and how prepared they will be to return to free society.”

Hanssens added, “In Alabama, if you are a prisoner with HIV, you will be treated as if you are a high security risk, based not on your crime, not on your sentence, and not on your behavior, but solely on the basis of your HIV status. That is a clear violation of the ADA.”

In Bragdon v. Abbott, the 1998 Supreme Court decision that established that the ADA can protect people with HIV from the moment of infection, the Justices ruled that a dentist could not deny services to a patient simply because he feared contracting HIV. The Justices held that under the ADA, policies and procedures must rely on objective, scientific evidence regarding the “statistical likelihood” of transmission.

However, the 11th Circuit, in endorsing the Alabama prison policy, stated that because HIV transmission was a theoretical possibility, state corrections officials could segregate prisoners on the basis of HIV.

Lambda’s brief, co-authored by the Whitman-Walker Clinic and submitted on behalf of groups including the Infections Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association, and the Association of Schools of Public Health, argued that in a normal prison setting, the risk of HIV is almost non-existent, and that inmates with HIV pose no direct threat to other inmates or staff.

Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

(Davis v. Hopper, No. 98-9663) --30--

CONTACT:Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x230, 1-888-987-1984 pager
Catherine A. Hanssens 212-809-8585 x 215


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