HIV Ghettos in U.S. Prisons Are Finally in the Past

Published: July 10, 2013

We are 30 years into the HIV epidemic. Surely, by now, stigmatization, isolation and discrimination against people living with HIV should be a relic of the past. Yet up until today, categorical HIV segregation — one of the ugliest remnants of the darkest days of the epidemic — has not only survived, but has been officially sanctioned in South Carolina’s prison system.

South Carolina subjects all its prisoners to mandatory HIV testing as soon as they enter the system. Until today, prison officials have isolated all those who test positive in solitary confinement and then segregate them in HIV-only housing ghettos to serve out their prison terms. The State publicly stigmatizes all prisoners with HIV, by forcing them to wear badges — all too reminiscent of a Yellow Star or a Scarlet Letter — showing that they live in an HIV-only dorm.

This HIV segregation policy has long subjected all South Carolina prisoners to far harsher and more degrading conditions, with far fewer opportunities for rehabilitation, than their HIV-negative peers — and in many cases it has resulted in people with HIV serving longer time in prison solely because of their HIV status.

 The State currently confines all of its 600 male prisoners with HIV — even minimum-security prisoners serving sentences for trivial offenses — in a maximum security prison that houses South Carolina’s death row. The State bars all prisoners with HIV, including the 40 HIV-positive women in its custody, from eating in the dining hall with other prisoners. All prisoners with HIV are excluded from all jobs in prison food service. All prisoners with HIV are categorically excluded from work release programs — probably the most important of all prison programs, because work release so significantly improves a prisoner’s chances of a successful re-entry to the community. Prisoners with HIV are not even allowed to sit together during church services with other prisoners.

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