Lawsuit seeks more training about prisoners' medical info
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wants state correctional officers to have more training when it comes to making sure prisoners' medical information is kept private.
Sarah Rogers, a lawyer for the ACLU, filed a lawsuit in Kanawha Circuit Court earlier this month against the state Division of Corrections on behalf of an inmate who has HIV.
"I think there seems to be a lack of policy and training," Rogers told the Gazette. "There's a long history of discrimination. From what we've seen there are not effective policies to make sure that employees at different facilities know the laws and what the responsibilities are to protect privacy."
The lawsuit also names Sharlean Elliott, a correctional officer at the Beckley Correctional Center. The inmate claims that after Elliott found out the man had HIV, she told other officers and inmates, who harassed him.
The inmate, identified only as John Doe, who has been incarcerated since 1999, tested positive for HIV in 2009 while at the Beckley Correctional Center Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Center, the suit states.
On Aug. 9, 2011, Elliott took him to an appointment with Dr. Timothy Darnell, an internal medical specialist at Charleston Area Medical Center.
He was eligible for and waiting to be transferred to a work release center in Beckley, according to the complaint. Because of that, Rogers claims the man didn't need to be accompanied into a doctor's office, as he was not handcuffed and rode in the front seat during the transport, among other reasons.
"Officer Elliott insisted upon entering the examination room during Mr. Doe's appointment ... Mr. Doe requested that she remain outside of the appointment, but Officer Elliott entered the examination room against his protests, assuring Mr. Doe that she would keep his medical information confidential," the suit states.
After returning from the appointment, the lawsuit claims, Elliott disclosed that the inmate had HIV to other correctional guards and inmates and warned them to be careful around the man.
"Mr. Doe had managed to keep his diagnoses confidential until that point and had never had conflict with other inmates in the past," according to the complaint.
Elliott became "extremely hostile" toward Doe after he filed an administrative grievance against her, the suit states. That hostility escalated, and according to one example of retaliation, Elliott slammed the man's hand into a door and screamed, "I hate that inmate," according to the lawsuit.
Since 2011, Doe has been moved to three different Division of Corrections facilities and at each facility staff and other inmates have already been made aware he is HIV-positive, according to the suit.
"We're not saying there's never a time when a violent person needs to be accompanied, but there shouldn't be unnecessary intrusion into their medical privacy," Rogers said. "Consequently, there was disclosure among non-medical staff."
Jim Rubenstein, commissioner of the state Division of Corrections, said all employees are trained adequately when it comes to confidentiality matters.
"During that 40 hour orientation period is a review of policy directives and especially critical policy directives. We have a policy that deals with confidentiality of information and release of information and employees when they review the policy also sign a form acknowledging they've read and understand it," he said.
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.