Positive in Prison: HIV/AIDS in a Dublin Jail

Many months in the making, we’re delighted to see the docu-drama Positive in Prison available on this website as of 1st December 2017, World AIDS Day.

This 30 minute long podcast tells the story of HIV/AIDS in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s, and particularly in Mountjoy Prison, in Dublin.

Positive in Prison was created in partnership with Digital Drama, a multi-media production company who specialise in creating drama, documentary, and interactive events, often with a historical perspective. We began working together in early summer 2017.

For a while, our audio project remained nameless: all we knew was that it would draw upon oral history interviews in some way. I had interviewed about 30 people, and although these interviews fed in to articles and other academic outputs, we hoped to find a way to introduce some of the personalities and stories from these recordings to a wider audience.

Fairly quickly, the story of the first diagnoses of HIV in Mountjoy and the HIV/AIDS separation unit there emerged as a particularly powerful focal point for the piece. This unit, in which male prisoners with HIV or AIDS were held apart from the general prison population in Ireland, was not only striking in policy terms. It was also a place which made an enormous impression upon everyone who went there. Many of my interviewees discussed the unit, and the events and individuals they remembered from it. Through the separation unit, we could include a host of different voices and perspectives on HIV/AIDS in Irish prisons.

Having found our story, the challenge was to whittle down hours of recordings, and hundreds of pages of transcripts and notes, into something rather more digestible; something that would not only convey these little-known aspects of the history of HIV/AIDS, but would also situate them in the context of Dublin, and AIDS, in the 1980s.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that we wanted the bulk of the script to be word-for-word what my interviewees had said, albeit re-voiced by actors. We used actors to protect the identities of those interviewees who wanted to remain anonymous, and to obtain the professional sound quality that you hear on the podcast, while also (re-) creating the spontaneous quality of the original interviews.

The mammoth task of creating a script fell to Digital Drama. In reviewing various drafts, it was amazing to see how quickly they identified key themes, and how skilfully the fragments from different interviews could be woven together to tell a coherent and engaging story. With the addition of a narrator, a long day in the recording studio, and some expert editing, our story was complete.

Following our two launch events in London and Dublin, we’re hopeful that the podcast will find its way to audiences that might not usually think about history, and might not know much about HIV/AIDS, prisons, or Ireland in the recent past. We also very much hope that those interviewed will recognise the story that we’ve told – and that those with their own memories of Mountjoy and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s will get in touch!

For Janet Weston’s overview of the project, see her article in History Workshop Journal https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbz009

  • A Digital Drama Audio production, 2017
  • Sound Recordist: Callum Leak
  • Producer: Alison Ramsey
  • Sound Designer: David Chilton
  • Director: Kate Valentine

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