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Nevada prisons to end discriminatory practices against inmates with HIV following settlement with federal government

Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Criminal Justice
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Inmates in the yard of a correctional facility.

The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) will no longer illegally segregate inmates with HIV or deny inmates with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in department programs, following a settlement between the state and the federal government.

The agreement, announced Thursday, aims to correct the findings of a previous Justice Department investigation into the state’s prison system, which found in June 2016 that Nevada had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by housing prisoners with HIV separately from other inmates and by denying prisoners with HIV access to equal employment opportunities.

That investigation began in late 2014 after the department received complaints from two inmates at the High Desert State Prison in Southern Nevada. The federal agency concluded that the state’s “House Alike / House Alone” policy, which resulted in the segregation of prisoners with HIV, was not compliant with federal law.

After the Justice Department reached a similar agreement with the South Carolina Department of Corrections in 2013, Nevada became the only state to allow inmate segregation based on HIV status. The NDOC temporarily rescinded its segregation policy in 2017, before fully rescinding it on May 15, 2018.

“The routine segregation of inmates with HIV is unnecessary, stigmatizing, and harmful, and the Department of Justice will enforce the ADA to stop such discrimination,” Pamela Karlan, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. 

HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS, but it does not spread through saliva, tears or sweat, or by hugging, shaking hands, sharing toilets or sharing dishes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

The segregation of prisoners based on HIV status does not have any legitimate health justification and is opposed by public health experts and correctional authorities, including the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

The department also found that when Nevada took steps to integrate prisoners with HIV in or around 2016 and 2017, some of them had their confidential medical information exposed, leading to those prisoners facing discrimination based on their disability. One goal of the settlement is to prevent further discrimination towards those prisoners.

Based on the terms of the agreement, the state also must ensure that qualified inmates with disabilities, including mobility disabilities, HIV and other physical or mental health conditions, are not excluded from employment opportunities, lower-custody classifications and housing placements.

The Justice Department found that by denying prisoners with disabilities access to these programs, NDOC deprived them of an equal opportunity to earn sentence reduction credits and to accelerate their release dates.

The settlement also includes a requirement that the state train NDOC staff and inmates on HIV and disability discrimination.

Wesley Juhl, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the education aspect is crucial because of how far knowledge about HIV has come.

“I think letting people know that ... this is the truth about HIV and how it's transmitted,” said Juhl. “You don't need to ... treat people as outcasts just because they have this disease. It’s actually much more manageable, and I don't think the laws match the science on that.”

Juhl called the agreement “a good step forward” but noted there are still other systemic issues facing Nevada’s prisons, including the pandemic, which has swept through the prison population, and the ongoing Justice Department investigation into pepper spray use at two Nevada juvenile detention facilities. And he took issue with how the state has addressed its population with HIV.

“I think, kind of across the board in the state, we have problems with laws and policies that target people living with HIV and AIDS,” Juhl said. “It's nice that we're hopefully gonna take some steps forward, but it shouldn't take the DOJ to come in to make it happen.”

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