Double Punishment!

An Interview with Kathleen Meagher

Kathleen Meagher is a counsellor working with Crosscare, with special emphasis on befriending people within the prison system who are H.l.V. positive. She is a member of the Presentation Sisters and spent a number of years in New Zealand, Australia and Chile before returning to Dublin. She lives in the inner city. Here she talks to Mavis Arnold.

When I came back from South America in 1989 I was approached by Bishop Des Williams and asked if I would set up a befriending service for prisoners in Mountjoy prison who were H.I.V. positive. At that time they were segregated from the other prisoners and both they and their families outside were very isolated. Since then these prisoners have been desegregated.

Desegregation is right in theory but not so good in practice. People with H.I.V. have needs that cannot be met in the main prison where they often don’t get the benefits of diet and special medical care. There is still no recognition within the prison system that people who are ill from H.I.V.-related illness are different from those with other illnesses. Their medical, social and psycho­logical needs are not catered for. Also it is a very complex illness. If a person gets a severe infection they can be at death’s door one minute, but as soon as they get to hospital and are treated they quickly recover. A prison officer has to stay with them in hospital where they are often chained or handcuffed to the bed. They may have to wait for hours to be seen in the Accident and Emergency Department and sit handcuffed to a prison officer. They feel anger and rejection because they feel their whole body reflects the disease.

Dependency

All systems create a dependency and none more so than with H.I.V. and A.I.D.S. The person’s independence goes and they have to live with the social implications of the disease. They have no support, they can’t talk about it and all around them is the unspoken judgement of society that they have brought it all on themselves. I find society’s attitudes quite frightening and this is reflected inside the prison system. Prisoners may not want to share cells or even play football with H.I.V. prisoners so they are isolated in a way that differentiates them from other prisoners. If they get involved in a fight prison officers will ‘gown up’ before they intervene. H.I.V. prisoners feel they are being rejected because of their H.I.V. status. I sometimes feel that they are being punished five and six times over.

H.I.V. prisoners have a reputation within the prison for being volatile and difficult to handle. Kathleen accepts that this is so: “They sometimes cut themselves to draw blood and keep the officers away from them. They may ask for a check-up, be refused and then do something to themselves which will ensure they have to go to hospital. Even in hospital they will often be barred because of violent behaviour though there now seems to be increasing evidence of A.I.D.S.-related dementia which may cause this violent behaviour.”

Counselling in Prison

She would like to see H.I.V. clinics within the prison system properly staffed with welfare officers, social workers and counsellors. “At the moment many prisoners have none of these supports and they don’t know how to work the system when they get out. There are so many issues involved. For example, the sexual transmission issue is ignored because there is so much emphasis on the dangers of sharing needles but most drug users also have a sexual life. You can talk to them about safer sex, but if it’s not in the realm of their experience they forget they can transmit the virus in this way.”

A prison is not a friendly environment for counselling. “It can be terribly difficult. A prisoner can get into really heavy stuff towards the end of a session and my dilemma is: do I let them continue, knowing that they have to go out of the room, face the prison officers and go back to their cells? They cannot be seen to have cried. Weakness in prison is despised, both by prisoners and officers. If I don’t let them continue, then they might be left in a worse state. Sometimes I give them my mobile phone number so that we can talk later if they are upset and I find that the officers are getting better about accepting this and allowing them to ring.”

The Person not the Virus

Counselling prisoners involves the ability to meet them as people. And while this sounds unnecessary to stress, given that it is the basis of all counselling, Kathleen Meagher explains its importance. “Those with H.I.V./ A.I.D.S.-related illness suffer such paranoia that they actually become the virus. I have gone beyond seeing the virus and the day when that is all I see is the day I have to stop. I have learned more about myself through working with people with the virus than I ever have before. They challenge me to think things through at the most basic level. These men and women are especially vulnerable. They have the same basic needs to be loved, accepted, cared for, just as I do myself, only more acutely. When I am with them I have to throw a lot of counselling theory out the window. I have to let the reality of the present moment be my guiding force. They may be very depressed because they are unwell, or because they were abused as children or because they are worried about their families. All I can deal with, sometimes, is their vulnerability and the loss of their self worth, family, friends and freedom.”