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Seminar: Panel 'Bedlam in Broad Arrows: Mental Disorder and Penal Institutions in Ireland and England’

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Location: R0.14 Ramphal building, University of Warwick

All are welcome. Refreshments served.

Panel: Fiachra Byrne, Catherine Cox (UCD) and Hilary Marland (Warwick)


Does prison drive you mad? And were mentally ill people particularly liable to be imprisoned? Our two presentations assess the relationship between the mental health of prisoners and prison regimes between the 1840s and the present day, drawing on examples from England and Ireland. Catherine and Hilary focus on two core continuities: the high numbers of people with mental health diagnoses within the criminal justice system, and the detrimental impact of prison regimes on the mental wellbeing of prisoners, taking as its starting point the introduction of the new ‘Philadelphia’ system of separate confinement in the 1840s, which came to shape and dominate prison disciplines and philosophies into the twentieth century. We consider how the concerns and interventions of prison doctors and chaplains were shaped by dual loyalty to the prison system and to the health and wellbeing of their prisoner patients. Our presentation will ask whether the prison system saw the production of a form of psychiatry and psychiatric practice distinct from that evolving in asylum and mental hospital care. Finally, it questions how far prisoners were believed to be deserving of care and treatment, and to what extent their mental health problems were seen as being embedded in their criminal activities and produced by their vulnerability to mental breakdown rather than being created by the prison system itself?

Looking at the period from 1945–1973, Fiachra will consider the extent and limit of the influence of psychiatric and psychological categories, models, and practices in the shaping of juvenile detention systems. While the inter-war period has been hailed as a time when the ‘mentally disordered offender’ became paradigmatic for all offenders (Seddon, 2007), for the juvenile offender, at least, it was only in the post-war period, with the extension of psychiatric assessment and services, that some flesh was put on the bones of this would-be conceptual shift. Through an examination of the institutional records of a variety of male and female juvenile detention facilities – borstals, remand homes, and approved schools – this paper will consider the response to psychological disturbance in terms of the emergence of new medico-penal sites of containment, therapeutic regimes and disciplinary frameworks. Specifically, it will explore whether the increasing impetus to disaggregate the most ‘disturbed’ cohorts of delinquents in confinement to specialist facilities was driven primarily by therapeutic concerns and formal changes in psychiatric knowledge or by the problems of managing disturbance in these sometimes crisis-ridden institutions. It will also query whether questions of gender inflected the psychiatric construction of the disturbed adolescent offender in this institutional context.

black and white photo of young male prisoner in straightjacket

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