Alabama Advocates Urge Officials To Remove Work Release Restrictions for HIV-Positive Inmates
Advocates in Alabama are calling on prison officials to remove work release restrictions for HIV-positive inmates, the AP/Alabama Live reports. According to the AP/Alabama Live, HIV-positive inmates in Alabama are eligible to participate in the Supervised Early Release Program, which allows them to live away from prisons near the end of their sentences. However, advocates say that Alabama is the only state with a prison system that bans HIV-positive people from participating in work release programs.
Work release programs allow select inmates to hold jobs, earn money and spend the day without supervision of corrections staff outside of prison. In Alabama, inmates must meet several criteria before being allowed to participate in the program, including testing HIV-negative. State corrections officials attribute the rule in part to medical requirements that were established in a 2004 settlement of a lawsuit over inadequate health care for inmates living with HIV/AIDS. Medical requirements for inmates living with the disease include special diets and monitoring of inmates who take antiretroviral drugs by a nurse, the AP/Alabama Live reports. According to prison officials, the work release program allows inmates to be free of staff supervision, making the medical monitoring provision of the settlement impossible to meet.
Prison officials in other states -- including Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee -- said they have work release programs similar to Alabama, and none bans HIV-positive inmates from being eligible. Keith Acree, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Correction, said he is "surprised" to hear of the rule. He added that in North Carolina, "as long as the inmate is physically able to work, they can do work release. If their medical condition gets to a point where they can't do the job, then they have to put them on some other program." David Fathi, director of Human Rights Watch's U.S. program, said, "If 49 other states can allow HIV-positive prisoners" to participate in work release programs, "Alabama could do it too."
Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said, "I think we're dealing with a long custom here in Alabama. There's fear here." She added, "Certainly, we have no reason to think anything the commissioner is doing is based on malice -- far from it -- but there needs to be a rational look at the facts." Alabama Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said that the situation is under review and that the issue is not very widespread. "We're talking about a very small number of inmates -- a handful of women and maybe a score of men when you consider who's eligible with the other criteria," Allen said.
Edward Harrison, president of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, said the medical monitoring cited by Alabama prison officials can be a valid concern. He added that he assumes officials are open to alternate approaches "if it can be done without compromising security and health." Fathi said Alabama ultimately has to decide if it is in the state's best interest to keep HIV-positive inmates from participating in work release programs. "It's really about public safety," Fathi said, adding, "That means less crime, fewer people returning to prison and, ultimately, it means a safer society for everybody. So by denying work release to inmates with HIV who would otherwise be eligible, Alabama is shooting itself in the foot" (Hunter, AP/Alabama Live, 3/23).