Michigan Corrections Officials Push Change to Policies on HIV-Positive Prisoners

A Michigan Department of Corrections official confirms that the department is seeking changes to a controversial policy barring HIV-positive prisoners from working in food service jobs.

This article was originally published at Michigan Messenger, and is published here in partnership with Michigan Messenger, the Center for Independent Media, and Rewire.

A Michigan Department of Corrections
official has confirmed that the department is in the first stages of
making a change to a controversial policy barring HIV-positive
prisoners from working in food service jobs.

MDOC Assistant Director Russ Marlan said in an interview last week
that the department’s director, Patricia Caruso, has approved a plan to
change the policy, something Michigan Messenger first examined in April
followed by an investigation by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

“[Caruso] has authorized a change in the policy,” said Marlan, who
serves as a department spokesman. “She authorized me to begin that
process with our policy people.”

As a result, a letter and draft language eliminating the food
service prohibition provision went out sometime in the last week to
wardens and other stakeholders in the corrections department, Marlan
said. Those officials will have 30 days to respond to the proposed
changes, and if nothing surfaces to challenge the change, the policy
could go in effect as early as the beginning of December.

Marlan stressed that while the policy change was not a “done deal,”
only strong reservations from wardens and others backed up with
substantial information could derail the roll-out of the policy

“She has said it couldn’t just be anecdotal, they’d have to have real data,” Marlan said.

Statistics from 2006 show1 percent of the Michigan’s prison population was infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.

The current policy is in place, Marlan said, to prevent violence.
The basis for the policy was the cause of some controversy earlier this
year, when Marlan told
Michigan Messenger that the policy was to prevent HIV from being spread
to other prisoners through food. At the time, Marlan suggested it was
possible for the virus to be transmitted through a HIV-positive inmate
sneezing on food. Marlan also suggested that an infected prisoner could
transmit the virus in kitchen accidents, saying, for example, that
blood on a radish could cause HIV to spread.

Months later, Marlan retracted his comments telling Michigan
Messenger they were “ridiculously wrong.” They also triggered a review
of the policy by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

The actual reason
for the policy is the fear that out of ignorance, a prisoner who is
HIV-positive serving other prisoners could result in targeted violence
against the HIV-positive prisoner. Federal courts have ruled
corrections policies do not have to be based on facts, but have a wide
latitude to address real or perceived threats to security. Potential
violence could certainly be a threat to security.

But Marlan said education in place in all MDOC facilities should
negate the ignorance factor which could fuel potential violence.
Prisoners are tested annually for the virus, and are given extensive
peer-lead education on HIV and its transmission.

Activist Mark Peterson, a director with the Michigan POZ Action Coalition, is praising MDOC officials for the policy change.

“I think it shows we are in a place where a department is seeing HIV
as a health issue and not so much a hysteria disease response,”
Peterson said.