Funeral being held for SC civil rights pioneer

Federal Judge Matthew Perry

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina inmates with HIV and AIDS could be worse off if the federal government has its way, state Department of Corrections Director Jon Ozmint said Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to sue the state if the prison system doesn't change its practice of segregating inmates infected with the virus and disease, Ozmint said.

"This is about left-wing politics controlling the United States Justice Department," Ozmint said. "This is about whether you want more AIDS or less AIDS."

Ozmint said all inmates are tested for the disease upon their incarceration. Those who are HIV-positive are sent to the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, where their standard of living matches that of the rest of the prison population, he said.

South Carolina and Alabama are the only states that segregate prisoners with HIV and AIDS.

Ozmint said the state received a letter from the Justice Department about a month ago that gave the state 90 days to change its practices or risk a legal challenge.

The federal Justice Department declined to comment. Specifics surrounding the federal government's contention are unclear.

Neither agency would provide a copy of the letter.

The Corrections Department is prepared to fight a legal challenge, Ozmint said. He also noted that the courts have upheld the prison policy in the past when the American Civil Liberties Union and inmates themselves have brought suit.

The policy has several advantages, Ozmint said. First, many prisoners don't know they're infected until the prison tests them, he said. The knowledge can help the inmates take precautions against infecting others after they are released.

While in prison, the separate housing allows the state to provide specialists in a centralized location to treat the HIV-positive inmates, educate them about the virus and disease, and teach them to manage their health, Ozmint said. The segregation also controls the spread of the disease through assaults and sex, and helps to keep the staff safe, he said.

The prison system created dormitories specifically for HIV-positive inmates in 1998. The state has 420 HIV-positive inmates, down from 582 in 2000.

Ozmint said the Obama administration is doing the "bidding" of the ACLU.

The ACLU in April released the report "Sentenced to Stigma" that called on South Carolina and Alabama to change policies. The advocacy organization said segregating the prisoners with HIV and AIDS and forcing them to wear identifying armbands, among other indicators, leads to harassment and discrimination. The treatment is "inhuman and degrading," according to the report. Also, the infected inmates eat and worship separately, and are denied equal participation in prison jobs and other programs such as work release in South Carolina, the ACLU found.

Ozmint said the Corrections Department offered to create a work-release program for the HIV-positive inmates, but the Justice Department said that wasn't enough to address the issue. A spokesman for the Corrections Department said South Carolina HIV-positive inmates attend activities with other inmates, including work, school and faith-based programs.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, applauded the Justice Department intervention.

"We are glad to hear that the Department of Justice appears to recognize the importance of dismantling this illegal, discriminatory and unnecessary policy," Middleton said in a statement. "HIV prevention can and should be managed with information and risk-reduction programs -- not with illegal stigma and isolation."

Ozmint said South Carolina could go the way of other states and not test the inmates or put them in separate housing. If that were to happen, the inmates with HIV and AIDS would not have access to the same level of care they do now because the state can't afford to provide specialists in each of the 28 institutions, he said.

Changing the policy could result in an immediate cost savings, Ozmint said. One prisoner with AIDS on a full course of treatment can cost $2,000 a month, given the expense of the treatment drugs, he said.

But the cost is higher than the dollar and cents involved, he said.

"It's not the right thing to do," Ozmint said.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.

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