From jail fever to HIV/AIDS and more recently hepatitis, infectious diseases have been rife in NSW prisons over the last 200 years.
The Caring for the Incarcerated exhibition at the University of Wollongong examines key moments from the last 200 years of NSW prison medical service.
Associate Professor Louella McCarthy from UOW’s Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health (SMAH) says the research behind the exhibition aims to unveil how historical forces come into play in today’s delivery of health care within the prison system.
She said the exhibition seeks to address the longstanding questions around the prevalence of and responses to illness in prisons and invites people to take a journey into this often hidden history.
...For some prisoners it actually improves their health to go into prison.UOW Associate Professor Louella McCarthy
Researchers supported by the UOW interdisciplinary research program, Global Challenges, have been investigating the historical drivers for change in the delivery of health care for those in prison.
The team brings together experts from public health, medicine, creative writing, history and criminology among other disciplines.
Prof McCarthy said NSW was one of the oldest running state-sponsored prison medical services in the world. People have been incarcerated since 1788 in Australia.
‘’So the role of government has been crucial in appointing local doctors throughout really until basically the start of the 20th century, when the Justice Health System was created and the prison service had its own independent medical service,’’ she said.
‘’In the past it was much more at a prison level, where each prison had its own doctor they would call in for emergencies or clinics...but they also did and still do make use of local hospitals.
‘’Infectious diseases has been a very important category in the history of prisons throughout the period we are looking at.
‘’There’s been smallpox and tuberculosis was a big issue. More recently its been AIDS or HIV and now hepatitis.
‘’Mental health is another big issue which has been a real challenge for them [prisons] and is still a challenge for them and society at large.’’
She agreed with fellow researcher Dr Stephen Hampton, the executive medical director of the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network, who said prisons will always contain some of the most disadvantaged people in a society.
‘’Now and in the past prisoners tend to come from a group in society who are less likely to go to a doctor,’’ Prof McCarthy said.
‘’But when they go into prison the opposite is true…..so for some prisoners it actually improves their health to go into prison. I know it is counter-intuitive of what we'd expect to find but that’s what is happening.’’
The Caring for the Incarcerated exhibition will be launched at 6pm on Wednesday.
Curators Professor McCarthy and Dr Kath Weston will speak about their findings.
The exhibition is open to the public and runs until September 10 in the Panizzi Room at UOW Library. It will then be shown at prison museums around the country.