Former inmate living with HIV sues Delaware County prison

A former inmate at a Delaware County prison claims his civil rights were violated when he was denied employment as a food-service worker due to his HIV-positive status. He also alleges his HIV-privacy rights were violated within the prison.

“John Doe,” 26, of Lancaster County, was serving time at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Thornbury, Pa. when the alleged violations took place. The facility is owned by Delaware County. Doe filed an antibias suit in federal court in April 2022, seeking an undisclosed amount in damages.

At the time of Doe’s incarceration, the prison was managed by GEO Group, a private, for-profit correctional management company — which is being sued along with jail officials and Delaware County.

On Feb. 16, 2020, Doe was detained at the prison due to an arrest on drug possession and paraphernalia charges. Doe disclosed his HIV-positive status to the facility’s medical staff. However, at no point did Doe authorize medical staff to share his status with anyone, according to the lawsuit.

About a week after arriving at the facility, Doe started taking HIV medications to treat his condition. Doe initially was housed on a general-population block, where he was open about his gay sexual orientation and subsequently harassed by some inmates, according to the lawsuit.

Doe reported this harassment to a correctional officer who encouraged him to apply for a job within the facility. Applying for a job would permit Doe to move to the workers’ block, which Doe believed would be safer for him, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2020, Doe applied for a job in the prison’s kitchen and he was relocated to the workers’ block. “On the morning of March 18, 2020, John Doe was informed by a correctional officer that he was on the list to attend a medical class later that day,” the lawsuit states. “John Doe understood this to be an infection control class on food safety and that the class was required to work in the [prison’s] kitchen.”

But when Doe tried to enter the classroom, he was blocked by the instructor and told the room was full. Doe believes he was denied admittance due to his HIV-positive status. Doe was subsequently rehoused back in the general-population block.

“On April 9, 2020, John Doe submitted an Inmate Request for Information form to his counselor, asking why he was not medically cleared to work in the kitchen and seeking information about other jobs that might be available to him,” the lawsuit asserts.

On April 13, 2020, a fellow inmate delivered to Doe a note stating in part: “You were not cleared to work in the kitchen because you have HIV.” The term HIV was underlined three times. The HIV reference was visible to the inmate who delivered the note to Doe, according to the lawsuit.

Doe was embarrassed, shocked and concerned about his HIV status being cited in the note, according to the lawsuit.

“On April 15, 2020, John Doe became aware that it had become general knowledge among other incarcerated people on his block that he had HIV, when he heard someone shouting that “102 has AIDS!” This was a reference to John Doe, who was housed in cell 102,” the lawsuit states.

Doe became very fearful of his safety. “Defendants’ impermissible handling by its staff of John Doe’s confidential HIV-related information led directly to other incarcerated people learning he is living with HIV,” the lawsuit continues. “As a result, John Doe became the subject of gossip, harassment, and was fearful of potential threats to his safety by other incarcerated people.”

According to the lawsuit, Doe continually challenged the alleged wrongdoing within the prison. He filed numerous grievances regarding the alleged unlawful violation of his privacy rights, his exclusion of a kitchen job, and the refusal of the Health Services staff to share relevant policies. All of the grievances were to no avail, also according to the lawsuit.

On June 23, 2020, John Doe began a job as a sanitation worker within the prison. He continued working in that position until his release from the facility on July 20, 2020, according to the lawsuit.

Doe is suing GEO Group, prison officials and Delaware County for allegedly violating federal and state laws. The laws cited by Doe include the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Pennsylvania’s Confidentiality of HIV-Related Information Act.

Moreover, the lawsuit demands the prison develop an anti-discrimination policy and conduct training for all staff regarding HIV transmission and universal precautions. The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages, costs, and attorneys’ fees.

The case is currently in the discovery phase. It’s been assigned to U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr. A four-day jury trial is tentatively scheduled to begin on May 23, 2023, at the federal courthouse in Allentown, if the case cannot be resolved.

Defense attorneys had no comment for this story. In court papers, they denied any wrongdoing. They maintained the prison was managed by a private contractor, GEO Group, when Doe was an inmate. Thus, Delaware County should not be liable for any wrongdoing allegedly committed by GEO Group.

In a Nov. 1 letter to defendants, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected Delaware County’s position that it has no liability for the alleged wrongdoing of GEO Group. 

The DOJ’s letter emphasizes the benefits allegedly denied to Doe by Delaware County. “This exclusion [of a kitchen job] deprived [Doe] of benefits, including but not limited to monetary compensation, special housing, extra privileges, and eligibility for sentence reduction,” the letter states.

The DOJ’s letter goes on to urge Delaware County to negotiate in good faith to resolve the dispute. “[I]f Delaware County declines to enter into voluntary compliance negotiations or if our negotiations are unsuccessful, the United States may take appropriate action, including initiating a lawsuit, to obtain redress for outstanding concerns,” the DOJ’s letter adds.

Additional information was unavailable, as of presstime.

Ronda L. Goldfein, an attorney for Doe, expressed optimism that Doe’s civil rights will be vindicated. “It’s important that wherever people with HIV are living, that they be treated fairly and in a nondiscriminatory manner,” Goldfein told PGN. “Our goal with this litigation is to make sure the public understands about HIV transmission. Food handlers with HIV have never presented a risk to the public. That has been established since the early days of the Americans with Disabilities Act [enacted in 1990]. And we will continue to repeat this message as many times as necessary.”