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The American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project has won the latest battle in a four-year turf war with a sole practitioner to become counsel for HIV-positive inmates in Mississippi. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 20 removed inmate class counsel Ronald R. Welch of Jackson, Miss., who has spent 20 years representing inmate classes in his state. The ACLU cites his close relations with state officials and scant resources as reasons for removal. “Welch’s nonfeasance and the constraints upon his ability … urge the rare remedy of substitution,” the appeals court ruled in its 2-1 decision in Gates v. Cook. Welch criticized Circuit Judge Fortunato P. Benavides’ opinion for its adoption of “the facts alleged by the ACLU … down the line.” He said that he will seek a rehearing. Welch was appointed to represent the class in 1993, after two HIV-infected prisoners sued over conditions in the state’s Parchman prison. ACLU officials said the settlement that Welch negotiated in June 1995 made no provision for crucial drug treatments and also made it difficult for inmates to sue over prison conditions. Since that agreement — which the inmate class counsel continues to supervise, thus earning fees — HIV-infected inmates have written the ACLU complaining of substandard housing, retaliation, exclusion from general prison activities and a lack of access to new drug therapies. Those are all things that the ACLU contends Welch was responsible for addressing. After the ACLU and Welch briefly cooperated in early 1999 to support a preliminary injunction seeking to compel Parchman prison to provide more services to inmates with HIV, the ACLU joined with class members in December 1999 to seek Welch’s removal. The U.S. district court refused their motion. It instead granted Welch’s request and issued a “no-contact order” barring the ACLU from contacting inmates regarding anything within his jurisdiction as class counsel — namely, Mississippi prison conditions. In throwing out the lower court’s ruling, the circuit panel ordered the lower court to review its initial denial of $100,000 in ACLU attorney fees. “The prisoners are now going to be able to do what they’ve been trying to do, which is to try and secure rights to humane and fair treatment,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the National Prison Project.

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