AIDS / HIV crisis in Mountjoy Prison in the 1980’s

Dr Janet Weston has written a blog for the Nursing Clio website about the AIDS/HIV crisis in Mounty in the 1980’s, exploring in more detail her research for the Positive in Prison: HIV stories from a Dublin Jail podcast which launches in London on 22nd  November and in Dublin on the 1st of December to mark World Aids Day 2017.

In Ireland in the 1980s, some 60% of all HIV and AIDS diagnoses were attributed to drugs injected with dirty, shared needles. Dublin had experienced an “opiate epidemic,” and rising rates of users injecting heroin; early research found that those affected were often teenagers and young adults from the inner city, who had left school at a young age and struggled to find employment in a city struck by recession. Bereavement and a family history of alcoholism was not uncommon.

Importantly for this story, three-quarters had been arrested, and three-fifths had served a prison sentence. In September 1985, 27% of patients at Dublin’s drug treatment clinic tested positive for HIV. A matter of weeks later, the first prisoner in Mountjoy received the same diagnosis.

We should remember that at this time there was no cure, very little treatment, and a lack of clarity and certainty about how HIV could be transmitted. This was true all around the world in the mid-1980s, but was intensified in Ireland, where information was particularly thin on the ground.

In many countries, staff in STD clinics developed some expertise in HIV/AIDS as they worked, public health experts could gather data and share the latest international findings, and gay activists helped to raise the profile of this new disease amongst researchers and politicians alike. Ireland had few STD clinics, little investment in public health, and homosexuality remained illegal, limiting the reach of the very new Gay Health Action group.

Widespread anxieties and uncertainties about AIDS were exacerbated by the prison environment.

Rumor and suspicion abounded on all sides. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions intensified fears of infection, and the prison doctors were neither trusted nor respected. Releasing HIV-positive prisoners was no long-term solution: more and more prisoners were coming forward to request a test, and within a short time some 10% of Mountjoy’s inmates had received a positive diagnosis. They were placed in segregation: a prison within the prison.

This is an edited extract. Please read the full blog here.

Image credit: Headline image: Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, Ireland. (Harold Strong/geograph)

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