Dr Janet Weston (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
Reforming Prisons in the 1980s: The Impact of AIDS
Inside Reform: Prison Healthcare Campaigns, Past and Present. Inside Reform was a policy workshop co-convened by Associate Professor Catherine Cox (UCD) and Professor Hilary Marland(Warwick), as part of their Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award Project, ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000’. This event was hosted by the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland and held at the National Gallery of Ireland on 2 June 2017.
This paper looks at the various groups that engaged with HIV/AIDS in prisons in England and Ireland during the 1980s. It delineates how AIDS in the prison environment was conceptualised and its longer-term impact on prison healthcare. In the early 1980s the linkage between HIV/AIDS, as a blood-borne virus, and intravenous drug use was first established. This linkage brought attention to the prison as a site of HIV infection and transmission. International studies found that prison populations had rates of HIV seropositivity far in excess of any other group and that the response of prison medical services to the issue was often scientifically unsound and ethically dubious.
In England, at the national level, both groups and individuals began to pay attention to the problem of AIDS and the prison from the mid-to-late 1980s. This included the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a body established by statute in the early 1970s, which produced a series of highly influential reports between 1988 and 1993 on drug use in relation to HIV and AIDS. These reports intended to fundamentally transform the UK’s drug policy in the light of HIV/AIDS and as part of that aim they focussed extensively on prisons and made specific recommendations. The National AIDS Trust, a body set up by the Department of Health, was also becoming interested in HIV in prisons at this time. Additionally, the UK Prison Reform Trust, reflecting its pre-existing concern with prison healthcare, was also increasingly occupied by the problem of HIV and AIDS in the prison population. Prison medical care in England had been the object of considerable scrutiny during the 1970s and 1980s and this informed many of the subsequent investigations into AIDs in prisons.
In Ireland, during the 1980s, HIV and AIDs in prisons occupied a lower profile than in England. There was relatively little official or public interest in prisons generally and even less in prison healthcare. The response to HIV and AIDS in prisons in Ireland remained quite low-key until the 1990s. The Department of Justice was generally unwilling to engage on the issue and reluctant to receive advice from external bodies. National strategies in Ireland around AIDs and drug use, when they did begin to emerge, only touched very briefly on prisons. More proactive and specific engagement came from individuals who were directly involved in the criminal justice system, such as social workers, probation officers and welfare officers. However, the critiques of these practitioners tended to be quite muted since they were normally talking about their colleagues and places of work. Prison Visiting Committees also mentioned HIV/AIDS as part of their wider criticisms of prisons and the medical services available in prisons. The National Task Force on AIDS, established by Catholic Social Services, also showed an interest in prison healthcare. This task force, whose broad membership was well informed on the issue, tried to influence policy through quiet backchannels.
Dr Janet Weston is a Research Fellow based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, supervised by Professor Virginia Berridge, who is carrying out research on the history of HIV/AIDS in prisons. She is the author of Medicine, the Penal System and Sexual Crimes in England, 1919-1960s (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Janet completed her PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2015, on medical approaches to sexual offenders. Her research examined the causes and cures that were proposed by psychotherapists, prison doctors, and other specialists in England in the early to mid twentieth century, in their efforts to explain and reduce sexual crime. Her research interests encompass histories of medicine and psychiatry, sexuality and gender, law, and criminology, crime, and punishment. During her PhD she taught undergraduate study skills and modern British history, and was one of the organisers of the Wellcome funded ‘Alternative Psychiatric Narratives’ conference in May 2014. She is also involved in the Raphael Samuel History Centre, and mentors young people with the educational charity Arts Emergency. Before returning to academia she worked in the charity sector.
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