RENO — Nevada’s prisons are discriminating against inmates with HIV under illegal segregation policies that deny them access to work programs where other prisoners earn credits to reduce the length of their sentences, the U.S. Justice Department has concluded.
Justice Department lawyers warned Nevada’s attorney general this week they may sue the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act if it doesn’t change the policies based largely on unfounded fears about the transmission of HIV.
They recommended the state pay compensatory damages to inmates who’ve been discriminated against — and in some cases threatened and harassed — as a result of the “medically unnecessary” segregation policy that stigmatizes those with HIV.
HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS but cannot be transmitted through ordinary activities such as shaking hands or sharing drinking glasses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rebecca Bond, chief of the Justice Department’s Disability Rights Section, notified the state in a letter Monday it’s violating the ADA by routinely denying HIV-infected inmates — and some others with mobility disabilities — assignment to low-custody facilities, including conservation camps and transitional housing where inmates earn the most work credits.
“No inmate should have to stay in segregated housing because of a HIV diagnosis or serve a longer sentence because of a disability,” said Vanita Gupta, deputy assistant U.S. attorney general and head of the department’s Civil Rights Division.
“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,” Gupta said.
The Nevada Department of Corrections is reviewing the findings, according to department spokeswoman Brook Keast, who said they are “committed to ensuring a safe and humane environment for all inmates.”
A federal judge ordered the state of Alabama to end a similar segregation policy in 2012 and South Carolina entered a settlement agreement with the Justice Department to do the same in 2013.
The Justice Department launched an ADA compliance review in Nevada after receiving complaints from two inmates at the High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs. After interviewing more than 30 inmates and more than 20 corrections workers, the department concluded Nevada’s “house alike/house alone” policy “stigmatizes inmates with HIV and indiscriminately disclosed their confidential HIV status to NDOC employees and inmates.”
As a result, 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.”
The ACLU got involved in January 2015 on behalf of an inmate who was denied work in a prison kitchen, Rose said.
“Everyone understands you’re being segregated and are aware of what’s going on,” said Amy Rose, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of 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 department noted the CDC has concluded HIV “cannot be transmitted through ordinary daily activities such as sharing toilets, sharing dishes or drinking glasses, shaking hands, hugging, touching, sneezing, coughing or exposure to the saliva, tears or sweat of a person with HIV.”
Nevada’s policy actually allows for inmates with HIV to work in the prison kitchen.
“But some NDOC employees either are unaware of, or have knowingly disregarded, this policy,” the report said. It said some inmates’ jobs have been terminated upon discovery that they have HIV.
The findings come at a time Nevada’s prisons have a new administrator who’s seeking funding and promising reforms and rehabilitation after years of complaints by advocates and attorneys about violence behind bars as well as food, medical and dental treatment. Among other things, since taking the job in April, James Dzurenda has ended a policy that let prison guards fire birdshot to stop inmate scuffles.
“The new director has set a good tone,” Rose said. “We’re hopeful these recommendations will be implemented and they will be taken seriously.”