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Learn how prison reform of the mid-19th century led to regular medical attention for inmates.

Post-reform, the surgeon was expected to attend Wicklow Gaol once a week and whenever called upon. This situation contrasted starkly with the 18th century, when conditions were much worse.

Medical instruments

High Standards of Medicine

The attention of the Medical Officer, Dr. Hamilton in the early years and then Dr. Nolan, appears to have been of the highest standard at all times. The number of visits in a year varied from 106 to 240, the latter amount recorded in the year 1849.

Meticulous notes were kept and show the level of attention and good care given to the prisoners. This was certainly different from the 18th century experience.

What diseases were treated?

Various diseases were treated in the hospital attached to the prison. In 1844, 762 cases were dealt with, many requiring daily attendance for some time. Catarrh, constipation and diarrhoea accounted for the majority of cases.

There were two deaths that year, one an infant still-born. Two prisoners had been “safely delivered of healthy children”.

Prostitution and Prison Medical Treatment

According to the Inspectors General, prostitutes frequently committed crime for the express purpose of being sentenced to the Gaol and thus being assured of receiving treatment for their social diseases. This was the case in 1845 when seven females, “the worst and most abandoned characters in the town” committed crimes for venereal disease treatment.

Though life was still cruel and harsh within prison, some humanity was shown, especially by the Medical Officer. There are instances where sick prisoners, continued to be held and treated in the prison until discharged by the doctor even though the term of their sentence was completed.

Cost of Medical Treatment

In 1863 it was recorded that the cost of medicine to treat prisoners for the year amounted to £7 15s. That’s just over €600 in today’s equivalent. It was also recorded that Dr Andrew Nolan, surgeon, received a wage of £65 (around €6,000) for his work.

The records also show that there were 5 water-closets in the jail. There were also lavatories, baths, and a fumigating room — a far cry in terms of hygiene from the squalid detention conditions of the 1700s.

Children in rows