HIV/AIDS in Prisons, 1980-2000

Janet Weston

The emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s presented particular challenges for prison medicine. Prison populations were quickly identified as having high rates of infection and of high-risk behaviours, and international organisations such as the World Health Organisation repeatedly called on governments to take action.

The precise nature of this action in England and Ireland was the source of considerable controversy. This strand of the project looks at these debates and the solutions that were implemented in response to HIV/AIDS in English and Irish prisons. Issues such as the screening of all prisoners, the segregation of those known to be infected, and the sharing of information about prisoners’ health amongst staff were all points of tension. The provision of condoms and clean needles was emphatically recommended by all international agencies, but proved difficult or impossible – in different ways – for English and Irish authorities to endorse. All could agree on the importance of education about the virus for staff and prisoners alike, but harmony over the content and delivery of such education was not so easily achieved. And campaign groups argued that widespread poor prison conditions and sub-standard medical care were exceptionally harmful for those with HIV/AIDS, causing further serious ill health and even early death.

Did the issues raised by HIV/AIDS act as a catalyst for change in prison medicine? How successfully were changes in policy implemented in practice? And, if this exceptional epidemic did encourage a greater acknowledgement of the human rights of prisoner-patients, or more imaginative attempts to address their present and future health, has it endured?

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London

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