South Carolina Prison Chief: Lawsuit Coming Over HIV Inmates

The U.S. Department of Justice may sue South Carolina over a policy that segregates HIV-positive state inmates, the director of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) said Tuesday during a meeting of the governor's Cabinet. Jon Ozmint said the DOJ's June 22 letter indicated the government would sue within 90 days unless South Carolina changed the policy.

In 1998, South Carolina began testing new inmates for HIV and segregating those infected. The state now houses more than 400 HIV-positive inmates together at a Columbia prison, officials said.

"Apparently, this administration has decided that they would rather us not test for HIV at all, because that's really your only other option," said Ozmint, who added he sees no reason to change the policy. "They would rather our employees be put at risk, other inmates be put at risk, and ultimately the public be put at risk."

DOJ did not return messages seeking comment by press time.

Ozmint said the HIV-positive inmates attend work, school, and faith programs offered to other inmates; they just eat and sleep separately. DOC offered what its officials consider a compromise, one that would allow inmates with HIV to attend work-release programs. However, DOJ rejected the proposal, Ozmint said.

"We're going to respond to the Justice Department's letter," Ozmint said. "The Justice Department has basically become an arm of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], and so they're going to sue us."

In 1985, 46 of the nation's 51 state and federal prison systems segregated inmates with HIV. Today only South Carolina and Alabama do, according to report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. A spokesperson for the Alabama prison system said that agency has not received a similar DOJ letter.