South Carolina Just Ended Its "HIV Ghetto" Policy

In a momentous but sparsely reported move, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has taken steps in beginning to abolish its policy of segregating HIV-positive inmates from the general inmate population, becoming the last state to do so.

For decades, the ACLU and other human rights organizations have been fighting the policy in South Carolina and several other states that required mandatory HIV testing for all inmates upon entering the prison system. With an HIV-positive status, inmates in South Carolina are immediately subjected to solitary confinement isolation as a temporary pathway to joining “HIV ghettos,” prisoner bunking units segregating them from all other inmates. 

The 366 HIV-positive men and women in the custody of the state’s incarceration system are housed in one of the state’s maximum security prisons alongside death row inmates. HIV-positive inmates are forbidden from eating in the same dining hall as other inmates and are systematically excluded from all food service jobs and work release programs inside the prison. Even worse, HIV-positive inmates were required to wear identification badges on their prison-mandated clothing to distinguish them from their HIV-negative counterparts.

The policy is a disgracefully clear violation of medical ethics standards and international human rights law. The policy is rooted in outmoded forms of science and public information about the transmission risks of HIV, and today, it remains nothing more than a structure for an ongoing discrimination against HIV-positive people.

Their segregation from the other inmates has meant a simultaneous segregation from the programs and services HIV-negative inmates have access to. Such a deliberate stratification is excluding HIV-positive inmates from the very medical and rehabilitation resources they most need. Their automatic non-eligibility for food service jobs and work release programs means an automatic lack of opportunity for receiving reduced sentences or receiving the proper training and resources for a successful reentry to their communities, potential job opportunities, and to larger civil society. Separate living quarters, isolated lunch tables, and mandated identification badges only further stigmatize HIV-positive inmates by “outing” their statuses to other inmates and prison employees, robbing them of the ownership of their own personal health information. All combined, the policy has perpetuated overall harsher and more degrading living conditions only justified by a legacy of discrimination driven by an ongoing culture of ignorance, fear, and bias.

The riddance of the policy is an obvious important step for making precedent a evolving cultural shift, especially in the Deep South, where HIV is a still a source of extreme discrimination and stigmatization, especially among still-marginalized LGBT communities and communities of color where incidences of HIV are highest. The result is that the stigma of HIV status has directly and deeply implicated racism, class prejudice, and homophobia as intersectionally relevant issues to achieving fuller HIV/AIDS justice.

There is, thus, more work to be done. The abolishing of the policy won’t take full effect until the agency has thoroughly trained and educated its employees on HIV- and AIDS-related issues, including the misconceptions that legalized the policy in the first place. No time frame or deadline has been established for those employee learning programs to take place, and an indefinite timeline makes all but certain HIV-positive will continue waiting for justice at the hands of bureaucratic convenience.

Further, a policy change that consolidates living quarters among all inmates does not automatically mean HIV-positive inmates will also begin receiving the same access to the prison system programs, health resources, and other reduced sentence opportunities HIV-negative inmates already receive. A full achievement for prisoners’ rights—and human rights, more largely—cannot be reached until the spirit of the new policy is comprehensively applied to all the ways in which prisoners are illegitimately labeled based on HIV/AIDS status.

The most work to be done is particularly relevant in larger society’s reaction to the policy change. In a simple poll conducted by The Post and Courier, more than half of respondents disagree with HIV/AIDS integration. With the dismantling of institutionalized discrimination underway, a more expansive cultural movement for HIV/AIDS justice outside of the apparatuses of state infrastructure is the next necessary complement to the DOC’s policy change.

The news is a tremendous first step, a step that can only be fully realized by an ongoing criticality of state-sanctioned and public discrimination alike and an ongoing commitment to HIV/AIDS injustice.

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Tyler S. Bugg

TYLER S. BUGG is an artist, activist, and writer from central Georgia and based in New York.

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