Ala. prisons may pay $1.3 million to ACLU lawyers

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A tentative settlement of a federal lawsuit calls for the Alabama prison system to pay $1.3 million to American Civil Liberties Union attorneys who sued the state over its policy of segregating prisoners with HIV and AIDS from other inmates.

A ruling on the settlement is expected early next week.

All other states except South Carolina have abandoned similar policies. South Carolina plans to move HIV-positive inmates into the main prison population by Jan. 1.

The ACLU sued the prison system in 2011 over the segregation of HIV-positive inmates, with about 200 male prisoners at Limestone prison and fewer than 10 women at Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka.

In 2012, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled against Alabama prisons in the case, and this year the two sides agreed to the settlement, which sets a timetable for moving the HIV-positive inmate into the general prison population.

Critics say Alabama could have saved money if it had joined other states in abandoning the policy.

The state agreed in the settlement not to appeal.

The chairman of the House General Fund Committee, Republican Rep. Steve Clouse of Ozark, said he plans to discuss with department heads the wisdom of pursuing cases where it appears “we are not going to win.”

Prison officials said they would have no comment until after Thompson rules on whether he will approve the settlement, prisons spokesman Brian Corbett said. Thompson is expected to rule by midnight Monday.

The settlement agreement calls for the complete reassignment of all HIV-positive inmates by Nov. 1, 2014.

The chief attorney representing the ACLU in the case,, Margaret Winter, said that even if the prison system had won the case “they were looking at spending millions of dollars” to fight the lawsuit.

“Absolutely this is money that could be better spent on needs inside the prisons,” Winter said. “Those resources could have been put into good health care for all prisoners and to reduce overcrowding.”

She said that if the state had not pursued the case, it would have avoided “a lot of suffering” for HIV-positive inmates who were segregated.

Thompson held hearings this week at Tutwiler and Limestone concerning whether the settlement agreement was fair to the HIV-positive inmates. Several inmates testified about living separate from other prisoners.

Dana Harley, an HIV-positive inmate, said in an interview that she got involved with complaints over segregation and the lawsuit because “I noticed how they wouldn’t ever make any forward progress with us going to trade school and work-release or being integrated in the population.”

State Rep. Patricia Todd, the director of AIDS Alabama, said she has been talking for a long time with prison officials about the treatment of HIV-positive inmates.

“If they had followed best practices, they wouldn’t have to pay the money,” Todd said.

She said she believes prison officials have let politics “get in the way of common sense” by continuing to segregate HIV-positive inmates. Todd also said Alabama has a history of passing laws “we know will be shot down.”

Republican State Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster of Alabaster, chairman of the Legislature’s Prisons Oversight Committee, said paying the attorneys in this case means “less will go into relieving overcrowding.”

Ward said he plans to discuss the issue with prison officials and other department heads.

“It’s unfortunate Alabama had to be one of the last states to break down this barrier,” Ward said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said he thought there were many better uses for the $1.3 million. “It’s another example of us spending outrageous amounts of money on attorney fees when we could be putting the money into the General Fund or into education,” Ford said.

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