A Witness Seminar on HIV/AIDS in Prisons

A witness seminar on HIV/AIDS in prisons

Hosted by the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 18 May 2017

Led by Professor Virginia Berridge (LSHTM) and Dr Janet Weston (LSHTM)

Janet Weston

An important part of our research into the impact of HIV/AIDS on prisons is to hear from those with first-hand knowledge and experience of how the prison service responded to this new health crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. As well as gathering individual oral history interviews, we have done this by organising a witness seminar as an opportunity for key individuals to discuss their experiences and memories of the development of prison policy around HIV/AIDS.

Witness Seminars as Oral History

Witness seminars are a type of oral history, where a group of people with some connection to specific events or circumstances meet to discuss and debate their memories. Like a historical focus group, it is an open and personal process, where people talk about their own experiences and recollections of the past. The Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has organised a number of these seminars before, on subjects from the smog of the 1950s to the reorganisation of health service funding in the 1970s. (You can read transcripts of some of these previous seminars here.)

Witness Seminar at the London School of Tropical Medicine

We invited 12 people to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in May 2017 to participate in our seminar on HIV/AIDS and prisons. Our guests included Sir Richard Tilt, former Governor and Director General of the Prison Service of England & Wales, Dame Ruth Runciman, former chair of the AIDS working group of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and co-founder of the Prison Reform Trust, and Mike Trace, former Director of the Cranstoun Parole Release Scheme and Chief Executive of the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust. They were joined in conversation by former governors, drugs workers, public health advisers, and representatives of the National AIDS Trust and Department of Health.

Left to right: Paolo Pertica, John Podmore, Mike Trace, Richard Tilt, Ruth Runciman. Particpants at the HIV/AIDS and the Prison Service, 1980s-2000s Witness Seminar, LSHTM, 18 May 2017

Fear of HIV/AIDS

The experiences of our speakers began in the early 1980s, just as AIDS was emerging as a new and unclear threat. As Mike Trace recalled, ‘Anybody working in the welfare sector then, the criminal justice sector, was aware something was happening, but as many of you remember it was some years before we knew what was happening, giving it a shape and a name to it in public health terms’. Speakers recalled the lack of information and enormous fear surrounding HIV/AIDS, and the initial impulse to provide special segregated facilities for prisoners with HIV/AIDS.

‘Doggedly Resistant’ to Change

Reflections and experiences encompassed the 1990s as well, with worries about bad headlines, disagreements between Ministers and prison administrators over controversial issues such as providing condoms or needle exchanges in prisons, and a lack of funding for prison healthcare in general making their mark. However, the witness seminar also drew out some of the good work that was done by committed individuals and committees and the changes that were introduced, often as a result of practice informing policy. Ultimately, as many speakers pointed out, prisons could be ‘doggedly resistant’ to change, but they were also a reflection of the attitudes of the wider community and its concerns and priorities.

Their lively discussion was recorded and transcribed, and we will be publishing the proceedings in early September!


Transcript of Witness Seminar

For relevant publications, see

Weston, Janet; Berridge, Virginia, ‘AIDS Inside and Out: HIV/AIDS and Penal Policy in Ireland and England & Wales in the 1980s and 1990s’, Social History of Medicine, 33 (2020 [published online 2018]) pp. 247-267  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hky090

Weston, Janet, ‘Sites of Sickness, Sites of Rights? HIV/AIDS and the Limits of Human Rights in British Prisons’, Cultural and Social History, 16 (2019), pp. 225-240. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14780038.2019.1585012

Weston, Janet, ‘Oral Histories, Public Engagement and the Making of Positive in Prison’, History Workshop Journal, 87 (2019) pp. 211-223. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbz009