MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Kala Kachmar, The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser) -- In 2007, an inmate at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union detailing the struggles she was experiencing in segregation.
Dana Harley, 40, was segregated because she is HIV positive. For years, she couldn't eat with other inmates, go to religious services with other inmates or participate in trade school programs.
"Being segregated because of your medical status is like saying you're overweight so you can't eat at McDonald's," Harley said. "We were considered contagious not only by inmates, but by staff too."
Because of Harley's letter, the ACLU is close to ending a 26-year-long battle with the Alabama Department of Corrections to eradicate a policy that segregates HIV-positive inmates and excludes them from certain rehabilitation programs.
On Tuesday, the first of two fairness hearings - a process required by law when a class-action lawsuit is settled - will be held at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala. On Thursday, a second hearing will be held at Limestone Correctional Facility.
Since 1987, the ACLU has made several attempts - through litigation and negotiations - to put an end to a policy that segregates inmates with HIV/AIDS, said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU National Prison Project.
Over the years, multiple judges have upheld the 1990 decision that said the segregation policy didn't violate the law. A panel of 12 federal judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld the decision in 1997, and review from the Supreme Court was denied in 2000, Winter said.
"(Harley) played a critical role in reminding the ACLU that we shouldn't be satisfied with the reforms we were getting through negotiations," Winter said. "We wanted to keep this going until the segregation policy was completely gone. There were people writing and pleading with us to keep going."
In 2011, after years of negotiations with multiple ADOC commissioners, the ACLU filed another lawsuit, arguing the case should be heard because of significant changes in the case's facts over the years, Winter said.
Last December, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson ruled the segregation policy violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Female HIV-positive inmates were integrated into the general population at Tutwiler last month, and male inmates will be integrated next, from June to November of next year.
Winter said Thompson didn't decide how many facilities would be integrated and didn't decide on what criteria would be necessary for HIV-positive inmates to be eligible for work release. But after months of negotiations, the ADOC agreed that all HIV-specific work release criteria would be eliminated and all HIV-positive inmates would be integrated.
A decade of segregation
Harley was incarcerated from 1999 until 2001 for writing forged checks, and returned in 2002 to serve a 20-year sentence for second-degree theft and for writing forged checks.
She was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 while in Geneva County Jail. Harley said she contracted it by sharing needles with her ex-girlfriend.
"I've never been ashamed," Harley said. "I've always been outspoken about my status."
Harley said she told her oldest son, who is now 23, about her disease when she first found out. She said her family was supportive, and her son's response was, "You're like Magic Johnson." She told her youngest son, who is 13, more recently.
Harley said she was able to tell her family right away, but some HIV-positive inmates didn't get to choose how to break the news to others because the segregation policy makes their condition known to the entire staff and inmate population. HIV-positive inmates were required to wear white armbands.
Until last month, all HIV-positive inmates at Tutwiler were confined to a separate dormitory. They were each assigned a cleaning job within their dorm or in the yard, and had to eat in their living space instead of with other inmates in the dining hall, Harley said.
In 2007, inmates were allowed to attend segregated chapel services, trade school classes and substance abuse programs, she said. But those programs sometimes extended an inmate's sentence because they had to wait until a segregated program was offered, she added.
Harley said inmates were made to feel like something was wrong with them. She said nurses would make comments about drawing blood during routine labs, and comments from other inmates were endless.
"You could ask a simple question and the reply might be, 'why, you're going to die anyway,' " she said, adding that she's heard everything from general comments about HIV/AIDS to jokes about the walking dead.
Harley, who began working with the ACLU in 2007, said she stood up for what she believed because she didn't want other inmates to go through what she had to go through.
"It wasn't for me," she said. "It's for the people behind me coming in who aren't as comfortable (with their condition)."
Winter said Harley's testimony that she was being retaliated against for her medical condition was affirmed by the judge in the case.
"She was a powerful advocate and the warden hated her for it," Winter said.
Harley said testifying made her realize that there were a lot of feelings she kept bottled up since she was diagnosed.
"When you're leading people, you have to be the rock," Harley said. "You're the shoulder they cry on. I was the one (other inmates) came to for family problems and medical problems. During my testimony, it hit me that I had a lot of emotions I never got out."
Harley said she is pleased with the transition and how smooth it's been. She said other inmates were excited, but scared at the same time.
"Even though people say they're OK (with the integration), you don't know until you actually get out. Once you get out and sleep beside them and shower next to them and use the bathroom, that's when you see how you're going to be treated," Harley said.
The eight female HIV inmates at Tutwiler have been blended into the general population since Aug. 1, Thomas said.
"It's worked relatively well," Thomas said.
Winter said the men will be integrated next year, in part because of education and training that needs to occur with both inmates and staff, so the process can be done safely and carefully.
"We've got a good plan and we want to execute the plan," Thomas said. "And if everybody is on board on the execution of the plan, I don't foresee it will be a problem."
Winter said the case overwhelmingly showed that it is safe for HIV-positive inmates to be integrated with the general population. Today, it's treated like a chronic disease if it's properly treated.
"With existing HIV therapies, people can live normal lives. Treatment is relatively simple - one pill a day," Winter said. "And when people are treated, the virus is suppressed and they cannot transmit the virus."
Winter said all male HIV-positive inmates are confined to Limestone and Decatur Work Release. When integration occurs, inmates may be able to move to facilities closer to their families.
"They generally take into consideration where their families are," Winter said. "It's enormously significant for many of the prisoners, especially the men. There are very few women's facilities in the state anyway."