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Mountjoy prisoners segregated in 1986 after 20% diagnosed with Aids antibodies

An internal document reported 33 male prisoners and 10 female prisoners had been identified as having Aids antibodies.

Image: prison image via Shutterstock

A GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT from 1986 outlines measures the Department of Justice planned to take to address the diagnosis of a number of prisoners in Mountjoy as having Aids antibodies.

The 21 January memorandum from the Minister for Justice informed government that more than 40 prisoners at Mountjoy diagnosed as having Aids antibodies.

None of the prisoners at that stage had been identified as suffering from symptoms relating to the illness. However, people who have Aids antibodies are still carrier and are capable of passing infection to other non-infected people.

The document said 33 male prisoners – 20% of the prison population - and 10 female prisoners our of 14 had been identified as having Aids antibodies.

Information from prison governors indicates that at any one time there could be as many as 250 prisoners who are in the high risk categories. People who are regarded as high risk as intravenous drug abusers and known homosexuals.

“This development is all the more unwelcome at a time when the overall prison population is running at a level some 50% higher than three years ago,” the memorandum noted.

Sensational publicity

There was concern about unease amount the general prison population due to the “sensational publicity which Aids  receives virtually every day”. HIV and Aids had not long been discovered at that stage and there was a lot of misinformation in the public domain.

There is no reason to believe that among a volatile prisoner population, the rational arguments which would suggest a lack of danger to their well-being would prevail. Prison staff too are concerned about being in regular contact with offenders who have Aids  antibodies.

Prison management had also pointed out that the news for an offender that they have Aids antibodies can have a “destabilising effect”.

“This must be seen too in the context that most of those involved will have had history of serious drug abuse with attendant personality problems. ”

The document said the decision had been made that prisoners with Aids antibodies should be segregated from the general prison population.

Firstly, it enables the restrictions and precautions which are deemed to be medically necessary to be applied easily. Secondly, it reduces tension among the general populaton and, thirdly, it allays to some extent the fears of prison staff (whose association during the course of lengthy discussions on the issue were adamant on the need for segregation).

The best location for the 33 men was considered to be a wing of Arbour Hill prison, though it was noted that this could cause controversy accommodation for teaching would have to be vacated temporarily.

Speaking to the Irish Times in 2011, one of those men, a man called Brendan spoke of his treatment following his diagnosis.

A medic told prisoners they had two years at most to live. In the wing at Arbour Hill, they were given paper pillowcases and sheets and meals were pushed across several tables to them.

Brendan said inmates who died were put in body bads and any possessions they had were burned.

There was a lot of anger at the treatment. I don’t hold any resentment against the authorities because they didn’t know. They didn’t have the information. But it actually killed a couple of people there because they went totally into themselves. The situation just ate them up. Before long, some prisoners realised, ‘Well if that’s how they’re going to treat us, we have this virus in our blood to retaliate with.’ The only thing I can say is that blood was spilled up there.

Family visits

It was concluded that it would not be possible to provide adequate segregation for female offenders in Mountjoy. Though it would have been possible in some form in the women’s prison in Limerick, the minister noted that this could mean a sharp reduction in visits for these prisoners because of the distance their families and friends would have to travel.

“A reduction in visits would represent a very severe blow, particularly to women offenders, many of whom rely on visits to keep in contact with their children. At a time when these offenders are trying to cope with the news that they have Aids  antibodies, a reduction in family contacts could have a very severe effect.”

The decision was made to use a landing of the separation units in the male prison instead.

The memorandum noted that further measures may be necessary if the number of prisoners identified as having Aids antibodies increased. It warned that this may involve the release of a number of offenders early.

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