Political Prisoners, Medicine and Health, 1850–2000

William Murphy

With the emergence in Britain and Ireland of modern prisons and, a little later, of modern prison systems, incarceration became a typical rather than atypical punishment for crime. So too, penal institutions became important facilities for the control of political troublemakers and dissidents of various stripes.

Since the late nineteenth century, various cohorts of these ‘political prisoners’ have transformed their prisons into sites of political activity by launching concerted protest campaigns. The accompanying propaganda has often cited the prisoners’ alleged ill health – physical and mental – as evidence of the authorities’ failure to treat them appropriately. While, sometimes, the authorities have sought to use prisoners’ health status as means of segregating political prisoners or of justifying their continued confinement.

In such contexts, prison medical officers, and their role, has been a focus of public controversy. This was especially true during hunger strikes, but, in general, MOs’ role and powers exposed them to pressures, often countervailing, from their employers in the prison system, the prisoners, prisoner support groups, the press, public and, sometimes in the case of part-time MOs, other employers.

This research strand will evaluate the intersection of health and medical care with ‘modern’ political imprisonment in England and Ireland, exploring the implications for prisoners, medical officers, prison policy and the reputation of prison systems. It also addresses policy concerns that are both wide and contemporary as these historic health interventions have implications for the general prison population while states continue to hold protesting dissidents.

Image: ‘London: Arrest of a Suffragette’. The Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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