Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000

Prisoners suffer significant health inequalities and a much higher burden of chronic illness, mental illness, infectious disease and substance misuse than the general population. Yet we lack an adequate historical perspective on these issues that might highlight continuities and ruptures in both prisoner health and prison health systems.

 Funded by the Wellcome Trust, Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in Ireland and England 1850-2000 is a large, complex, multifaceted project exploring many of these themes, conducted by a group of historians working in England and Ireland and based at four different universities.

Led by Principal Investigators Associate Professor Catherine Cox (University College Dublin) and Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick), the project team includes Dr William Murphy at Dublin City University and Professor Virginia Berridge and Dr Janet Weston at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Postdoctoral fellows at Warwick (Dr Rachel Bennett and Dr Margaret Charleroy) and UCD (Dr Fiachra Byrne and Dr Oisín Wall) complete the team.

Our project is an ambitious, wide-ranging, comparative history, seeking to tackle the theme of prisoners’ health and medical treatment from the birth of the modern prison in the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Our core research questions are:

  • Who advocates for prisoner health?
  • To what extent are prisoners entitled to healthcare?
  • Have human rights discourses impacted on prisoner healthcare?
  • To what extent have prison doctors been constrained by dual loyalty to both the prison service and their prisoner patients?

These overarching thematic questions are addressed by our various research strands:

  • mental health of adult prisoners (Cox and Marland)
  • mental health of juveniles in custodial settings (Byrne)
  • prisoners’ diet and nutrition (Charleroy)
  • health of women prisoners and prison maternity services (Bennett)
  • the impact of HIV/AIDS in prisons (Weston)
  • prisoners’ health and discharge organisations (Wall)
  • health and political prisoners (Murphy).


Disorder Contained by Talking Birds performed at Shop Front Theatre

The project seeks to engage with these questions not only in academic fora but also through public engagement Arts activities and at policy events. Our community-engaged work includes:

Positive in Prison: HIV stories from a Dublin Jail
  • Disorder Contained, a touring theatre piece exploring the effects of solitary confinement in Victorian times
  • Positive in Prison, a audio documentary, exploring HIV / AIDS in Dublin prisons
  • Past Times, a project working with Rideout at HMP Hewell working with vulnerable men to explore prison food and mental health
  • A project working with Geese Theatre at HMP Peterborough working in a Mum & Baby Unit
  • The Trial, a site specific multi-screen and sound installation led by visual artist Dr Sinead McCann in collaboration with UCD and The Bridge Project, Dublin. The installation will be at the Old Court Room in Kilmainham Gaal Museum, Dublin in April 2017.
  • A collaborative theatre production between UCD and award winning Irish theatre company Brokentalkers. The company will work in partnership with Mountjoy prison and PACE, a community based re-integration programme, to create a theatre production for public performance in Dublin during Summer 2018.
  • Health Inside; Thinking about Prisoners Right to Healthcare, a public art intervention led by visual artist Dr Sinead McCann in collaboration with UCD on the theme of prisoners’ right to healthcare for Autumn 2018.
  • A curated exhibition of photographs which will include the work of photo journalist Derek Speirs and an audio piece. The exhibition is scheduled to take place in Dublin in 2018.
  • Lock Her Up, three audio pieces developed with Fuel exploring women’s experiences in prison
  • Participation in the University of Warwick’s residency in June 2018 at Tate Modern as part of the Tate Exchange programme.

To date our policy activities have included:

You can read more about our research and upcoming events on the project website, where you can also join their mailing list. Follow us on Twitter @HistPrisnHealth and find us on Facebook


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