Is it lawful or humane for the state to dole out additional punishment to prisoners for a medical condition?
The New York Times published an article about an inmate, Albert Knox, who tested positive for HIV his first week in prison. After news of his test got around the facility, persecution at the hands of guards and fellow prisoners became relentless. Knox was banned from eating in the cafeteria or visiting with his classmates from his substance-abuse class. Although hepatitis B is 50 to 100 more infectious than HIV, the carriers of the latter are “stigmatized by their isolation and are denied equal treatment.”
The state of Alabama (South Carolina has similar policies regarding the issue, but most states stopped the practice of identifying HIV-positive prisoners years ago) has cited economic and prison crowding woes as the reason for isolating “positive” inmates to reduce the spread. As important as it is to be fiscally responsible, it cannot take priority over natural human needs.
Medical researchers have identified a wide range of health risks that develop in solitary confinement. A lack of social contact jeopardizes coronary health to a degree that rivals cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity, and lack of physical activity.1 People socially isolated are four times more susceptible to the common cold. These results are especially destructive to a person who already has a weakened immune system as a result of HIV/AIDS.2
Human contact keeps us sane, and contact with family members and loved ones is essential to the reentry process. By prohibiting inter-prisoner and family-prisoner contact, the state of Alabama and other states that have similar policies are condemning themselves to high recidivism rates and ultimately higher incarceration rates.
The treatment of HIV-positive prisoners is a moral one, but it should not be a partisan one. It is not a question of whether or not one supports lifestyles that commonly yield the contraction of the deadly disease. The question is this: will we as a society treat HIV/AIDS victims as modern day lepers, shunned and quarantined from society, or will we take a proactive approach to combating the disease while allowing the inflicted to avoid discrimination and retain their natural human rights?
The infected prisoners are almost treated as a lost cause, unworthy of the responsibility of preventative health care. What about an prisoner who contracted AIDS early in life through rape or forced prostitution; do they deserve this discrimination, the inability to have human contact or the access to appropriate medical care while incarcerated? Is this brand of corrections the kind of prison system we want our tax dollars to support?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV. is primarily spread through sexual contact or the exchange of blood. Although there have been rare cases of transmission through severe bites, “contact with saliva, tears or sweat has never been shown to result in transmission of HIV.”
This being true, the real issue that state prison bureaus should focus on is eliminating violence and sexual abuse within their facilities by supporting legislative efforts like PREA. Without violence and rape, HIV will only spread through consensual acts, as it would on the streets, and this is not punishable by law.
Segregation and discrimination by prison staff, which does nothing but coerce bigotry and abuse toward the infected prisoners by uninfected prisoners, is not part of an offender’s prison sentence. It certainly is not a positive component of prison reform.
Prison Fellowship has proven itself very passionate in the fight against the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, and the case of segregation of HIV/AIDS-positive prisoners is no exception. Companionship, mentoring, and social contact are essential to the reentry process and to reducing the American incarceration rate that plagues our nation.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-10