- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

CAPSHAW, Ala. — A prison within a prison, the Special Unit lives up to its name.
Every man in the Alabama prison system known to have AIDS is confined here, a converted warehouse at the Limestone Correctional Facility. More than 200 prisoners — some frail and red-eyed, others fortified by bodybuilding — inhabit long rows of bunk beds in the unit's main room, a cavernous, gray place as long as a football field.
To a degree unmatched in any other state, these men are systematically segregated round-the-clock and excluded from programs offered to other inmates.
Eating, sleeping, worshipping, arguing, taking medication, perusing law books, playing dominos — every part of their daily routine occurs within a fenced-in compound that is like a quarantined island inside the larger prison complex.
Inmates complain that living in such close quarters is stressful and unhealthy. The only privacy for each man is a drawer under his bed that he can padlock; pneumonia is more common in the unit than in other cellhouses scattered across Limestone's grounds in northern Alabama.
But the segregation policy also has fueled a spirit of camaraderie and self-reliance. The men run their own substance-abuse and AIDS-awareness courses. They organize memorial services when fellow inmates die.
"We consider ourselves like family," said Arion Davis, who started a 17-year sentence for manslaughter in 1994. "At times, it causes tension. But we try to support each other."
Davis and other inmates interviewed privately during a recent visit to the unit appreciate the efforts of their guards and medical staff to make life bearable, but they are bitter over their exclusion from educational and work-release programs that help shorten other prisoners' sentences.
The inmates — ranging from first-time, nonviolent offenders to convicted murderers — struggle with the reality that there are only two ways out: Fight off the disease long enough to serve your time or die.
"Keep us segregated if you want, but don't keep us from the programs," said Michael Merchant, jailed since 1999 on a drug conviction. "How are you going to keep a person from coming back here, if there's no rehabilitation?"
For nearly 16 years, Alabama's AIDS segregation policy was under legal attack by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in which lawyers representing Davis and other HIV-infected inmates accused the state of unconstitutional discrimination.
State officials welcomed the ruling and have made clear they plan to stick with the segregation policy despite criticism.
The goal of preventing the spread of AIDS among prisoners "outweighs the rights they may have to equal programming," Department of Corrections attorney Andy Redd said.
Mississippi and South Carolina also segregate their HIV-infected inmates, but South Carolina offers them some opportunities to share programs with other prisoners, and Mississippi officials recently promised to do likewise.
"Alabama seems to be lagging behind in its understanding of how the virus is transmitted. Segregated religious services, segregated libraries — they're not necessary," said Patrick Packer, a public health researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
An estimated 30 incarcerated women with the AIDS virus also are isolated from other female inmates at the Tutwiler Prison for Women near Montgomery. Although offered parenting and substance-abuse courses, they have no access to educational and vocational programs provided the other women.
But Mr. Packer doesn't expect any change unless state lawmakers suddenly see "what we're doing is completely wrong and inhumane."
Mr. Packer visits the Special Unit at Limestone regularly, and he is impressed by the inmates' resilience. "They've transformed it from the place where they were going to die to a place of life and energy," he said.
One example of their self-reliance is the inmate-run Substance Abuse Program, a six-month course open to 25 men at a time. The participants sleep in a bunk room separate from the main dormitory and engage in candid, sometimes confrontational group therapy encounters.
The men began a recent session by standing in a circle, holding hands, praying for inner strength. Then, seated, they took turns stating their names, their addiction problem and their mood.
"I feel inspired," said one. "I feel locked up," said another.
That's understandable. Though inmates have an outdoor exercise area in their compound, plus some tables in the shade for dominos or cards, they view the rest of the prison through a razor-wire fence that they rarely pass through — except when seriously ill.
Despite Alabama's midsummer heat, the unit is ventilated by a battery of industrial-size fans, the temperature is tolerable. But many inmates still spend much of their spare time in their bunks; there are few mandatory activities that require them to rouse.
Three times daily, inmates line up outside the warehouse to get their medication through the window of a small nursing station. In the winter, inmates said, the wait of up to 90 minutes can be bone-chilling.
The unit's main room includes the bunk section, two TV-viewing areas with rows of wooden benches, a barber chair, a handcraft area where some inmates build model ships and an elevated surveillance post in the middle of the room from which guards keep watch through windows and security cameras.
Prison officials initially struggled to recruit guards for the unit because of fears of contracting AIDS. Incentives, including a salary bonus and four-day workweek, solved the problem, and many on the current 21-member staff have worked in the unit for years.
Capt. Wendy Williams, the unit supervisor, said the result is good rapport between guards and inmates.
Many inmates "are going to die here, because of the length of their sentences, so it's almost like a death-row unit," Capt. Williams said. "You can't just treat them like other inmates. They have special problems, and we try to pick people to work here who can take that into consideration."
Understanding that many inmates have nothing to lose gives the guards a strong incentive for minimizing confrontations, she said. "They have a deadly weapon in their system, and if they wanted to contaminate some of the staff, they could."
Inmates who pose a serious threat, or are at risk of assault, are sometimes placed in solitary confinement in another building.
"But we can't lock everybody up," Capt. Williams said. "It behooves us to work it out."
Ronald Hatcher is among the Special Unit inmates who know the depths of despair. He received a life sentence for rape in 1989, then learned he had the AIDS virus during the mandatory screening of all new inmates.
"When I first got here, I thought I'd die in six months," Hatcher said. "People were dying like flies. It was tough. One of my partners — I tried to wake him up for breakfast one day. He was dead."
Gradually, improvements in AIDS medicines reduced the Special Unit death rate; officials said three of its inmates have died in the past year. But Hatcher, 34, says the lack of vocational programs and crowded living conditions still breed tension.
"We're congested," he said. "It brings out a lot of hatred, a lot of envy."
Initially sentenced to life without parole, Hatcher took a correspondence course in law and obtained a sentence revision so that parole is possible.
The Detroit native hopes his participation in group therapy and religious education programs will help him win release.
"The toughest part is keeping yourself focused," he said. "There's a lot of stress."
Capt. Williams said most of the fights in the unit stem from relationship conflicts, and she estimated that more than 70 percent of the men engage in homosexual activity.
"We don't condone it, but it's a reality in this environment," she said. "I play marriage counselor. I divorce them sometimes. You're going to have lovers' quarrels, and as part of maintaining control and security, you have to deal with it."
The ACLU and other advocacy groups are trying to build grass-roots support in Alabama for reforms that would end the prison segregation policy or at least improve programs.
"They're just warehousing people," said Jackie Walker of the ACLU's National Prison Project. "It hurts the prisoners, and it hurts the community, because they're going out of prison in no better circumstances than when they went in."
Capt. Williams agrees that vocational and academic courses — perhaps through computer-based distance learning — would be a welcome addition, but says there aren't enough resources for separate-but-equal programming. The state is grappling with a budget shortfall that has forced cutbacks in a wide array of programs and services.
"Money's always an issue. We can't afford to buy the equipment," Capt. Williams said.
Dr. Colette Simon, Limestone's infectious-disease expert, agrees with her Corrections Department superiors that the segregation policy is sound from a medical standpoint.
It not only limits the spread of HIV, she said, but also enables the prison to assign dedicated, knowledgeable nurses to work exclusively with the Special Unit men.
Nonetheless, many of the inmates and their families complain about the health risks of dormitory-style conditions.
"It's not an ideal situation," said Dr. Simon, who noted that pneumonia in the unit is more prevalent than among Limestone's 1,900 other inmates.
Even when a seriously ill inmate is moved from the Special Unit, segregation continues. There are both private rooms and a group ward at the main infirmary designated exclusively for inmates with the AIDS virus.
In all, the atmosphere is daunting, even to an articulate, self-confident inmate like Keith Lewis.
Lewis has been in the Special Unit for nine years, serving a 20-year sentence for first-degree robbery, and hopes to obtain parole soon.
Now 34, he once studied business administration at Tennessee State University, but his leadership of the AIDS-awareness program has convinced him to become an AIDS counselor after his release.
He strives to keep busy helping other inmates but shares the anxiety that many of them feel.
"Being caged up like this, there's a lot of fear," Lewis said. "You wonder, are you going to be able to be sociable anymore when you get out?"

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