By Noreen Griffin
A recent Justice Department report has cited extensive discriminatory and stigmatizing policies by the Nevada Department of Corrections. The NDC institutes a policy that houses inmates living with HIV apart from the general population, based on unfounded and scientifically disproven fears that HIV can be casually contracted.
According to the report, the Nevada prison system’s segregation policies, hold broad implications that present a clear personal danger to HIV- positive inmates, as well as result in longer prison sentences. By segregating these inmates, it signals to the general population that these individuals are HIV positive, which can place them in imminent danger. According to Amy Rose, legal director of the Nevada, “It endangers their safety because people don’t understand what it means to be HIV positive. And it seems some of the Corrections employees were in fact perpetuating those myths.”
The Justice Department stated, “As a result [of the Nevada’s “house alike/house alone” policy], inmates with HIV have been exposed to “potential harm from inmates who may hold unfounded fears of, or prejudices against, those with HIV,” the department said, adding that other “inmates have harassed or threatened those whom they believe have HIV.” In addition to segregated housing, the report finds that information from personal medical records that state an individual’s HIV sero-status, have been shared with both correction officers as well as inmates, a violation of the HIPA Act (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996).
Inmates housed in segregated housing are denied access to the facilities conservation camps and transitional-housing facilities, where inmates are offered beneficial programs, as well as work opportunities where credits towards early release can be earned. This denies HIV- positive inmates a right provided to other inmates, based on a disability.
An investigation was launched that resulted in these findings after the Justice Department received complaints from two inmates. During the investigation, 30 inmates and 20 correction workers were interviewed.
In response to the Justice Department threat of a federal lawsuit pertaining to the discrimination, the Nevada Department of Corrections announced it would drop its segregation practices. Prison officials will no longer disclose an inmates HIV status with correction officers. Though more change is still needed.
“Real and lasting reform in Nevada will require not only systemic changes in its policies, practices and procedures, but also a commitment to address unfounded stereotypes, fears and assumptions about individuals with disabilities,” Vanita Gupta, deputy assistant U.S. attorney general and head of the department’s Civil Rights Division said.
By David Miller