The S.C. Department of Corrections announced Wednesday that it had discontinued a policy of segregating inmates who test positive for HIV. South Carolina is the 49th state to have a nonsegregation policy, with No. 50 Alabama still negotiating the terms of a new policy after the American Civil Liberties Union sued to overturn the rule.

For the past 15 years, all inmates who have tested positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus upon entering the state prison system have been housed at two dedicated facilities in Columbia called Therapeutic Communities — or, as the ACLU calls them, “HIV ghettos.”

Although the policy of segregating inmates upon incarceration has been taken off the books, the Department of Corrections has not yet begun integrating inmates back into the general prison system. Currently, 351 HIV-positive men are kept at the maximum-security Broad River Correctional Institution, while 15 HIV-positive women are kept at the Camille Griffin Graham Institution, also a maximum-security prison. Inmates at those two facilities are not allowed to participate in work-release or food service programs, according to a Department of Corrections spokesman.

“HIV ghettos became a shameful fixture in U.S. prisons during the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially in the Deep South,” says Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project. According to Winter, 46 states rapidly instituted HIV segregation in the late 1980s, but as many of the state prison systems “realized they had way overreacted,” they dropped the policy until only six states retained their HIV segregation policies by the mid-’90s. South Carolina adopted its HIV segregation policy in October 1998, long after scientists had determined that the virus could not be spread via casual contact, saliva, or food supply.

Winter says that after Mississippi dropped its segregation policy in 2010, the only remaining states with HIV segregation were Alabama and South Carolina. “It became a choice of which we were going to sue first, South Carolina or Alabama,” Winter says. The ACLU chose Alabama, and finally, in December 2012, a federal judge ruled that the state’s policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. “South Carolina wisely decided to avoid litigation altogether. They were watching the Alabama case, and as soon as the decision came out, they wanted to read it,” Winter says.

Department of Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom says the removal of the policy is one of many new changes in the prison system’s health services, including renovation of a central pharmacy and a switch to dose-packaged medications to reduce waste and cut costs. “This is part of our overall plan to improve health services and inmate care, although we felt that the timing was right to make the change to avoid a possible federal lawsuit that would have forced us possibly to convert under a timetable not in the best interest of either our inmates or employees,” Newsom says. He also notes that the Department of Corrections had been looking at changing the policy “for quite some time.”

“SCDC will not begin to implement this policy until we have provided extensive training and education to both our employees and the entire inmate population,” Newsom says. “The latest medical advances and common misconceptions concerning HIV and AIDS will be covered. No condoms will be provided. Sexual relations between inmates is against the law and, obviously, against agency policy.”

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