Ala. Corrections Department’s Lapses in Medical Treatment Violated HIV-Positive Inmates’ Rights, Judge Says
A U.S. Magistrate judge last week said that Alabama prison officials violated HIV-positive inmates' constitutional rights and that poor medical care caused the early deaths of some inmates, the Birmingham News reports. Judge John Ott issued his 28-page report after the state Department of Corrections settled a 2002 federal lawsuit filed by HIV-positive inmates at the Limestone Correctional Facility (Crowder, Birmingham News, 6/8). Under the settlement -- signed last month by the department; Birmingham-based NaphCare, the prison system's former medical contractor; and plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit -- the corrections department is required to provide dozens of improvements in living conditions and medical care for the state's HIV-positive inmates. The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights in August 2003 released a report on the 300-person HIV unit at Limestone as part of the lawsuit, Leatherwood et al. v. Campbell, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in March 2003 by the center against DOC and NaphCare. The 125-page report provided a detailed case summary of the deaths of 38 HIV-positive inmates between 1999 and 2002 and concluded that the unit's medical care system was substandard. According to the report, in nearly all of the 38 deaths, "death was preceded by a failure to provide proper medical care or treatment" and "preventable illnesses" caused all of the deaths. In addition, the report said that the "overcrowded," side-by-side, head-to-toe bunk beds of the facility "placed these immune-compromised patients and the staff at an undue risk of acquiring contagious diseases." Under the settlement, DOC must allow a medical consultant to monitor the conditions of the HIV unit on a quarterly basis for two years. In addition, DOC must hire a full-time nurse to coordinate infection control and inmate medical care (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/28).
Ott said in the report, "It is evident that lives were lost due to preventable lapses in medical treatment," adding, "HIV prisoners died without necessary intervention by" the Limestone medical staff or DOC. He added that if the inmates' lawsuit had gone to trial, they likely would have won because of the "disregard of human life" exhibited by the prison and the department, the News reports. Ott cited the death of inmate Terrell Grey, who died in a prison van on the way to a Birmingham hospital. Although he was critically ill, two corrections officers with little medical training were sent to accompany him. Ott said that Grey's death was the "result of one of numerous inadequate emergency medical responses," according to the News. Ott also said that the entire HIV-positive population -- about 200 male inmates -- were exposed to tuberculosis, which is "especially dangerous and deadly" for people living with HIV, the News reports. U.S. District Judge Karen Bowdre still must approve Ott's report, according to the News.
SCHR attorney Joshua Lipman said, "There seems to be a lot of support for what Dr. Tabet found," adding, "I think what Judge Ott's opinion really shows is that this [settlement] is going to make the situation [at Limestone], in terms of the medical care and housing, much better than it ever was." NaphCare spokesperson David Davis said that the company "was dismissed from this lawsuit on Jan. 30, 2004, and at that time the plaintiffs' claims of inadequate medical treatment had not been substantiated." Davis added, "NaphCare cannot comment on why the remaining defendants chose not to defend against the plaintiffs' allegations." The News reports it was unable to contact DOC for comment because of a state holiday on Monday (Birmingham News, 6/8).