Ireland: Volunteer inmates deliver community-based health and first aid in state prisons

Published: 27 May 2013 12:39 CET

In June 2009, Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce a community-based health and first aid (CBHFA) approach into a prison setting at Wheatfield Prison in Dublin. The programme operates under a partnership between the Irish Red Cross, Irish Prison Services and Vocational Education Committee.

The CBHFA programme takes a unique approach to raising community health, hygiene awareness and first aid in prison communities through peer-to-peer education provided by inmates working as Irish Red Cross volunteers.

Volunteers act as advocates for change by providing fellow inmates with instructions on good handwashing techniques and cleanliness, thus contributing to the prevention and control of disease. As a result, there has been a marked improvement in personal, in-cell and prison hygiene.

Volunteer inmates have led successful projects on raising awareness on tuberculosis (TB) prevention, HIV and AIDS awareness, smoking cessation, winter vomiting bug, seasonal flu, heart disease and stroke awareness. They have also initiated practical demonstrations in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and basic first aid around the prisons. The inmate volunteers use images, symbols and colour coding to communicate with peers whose language or learning skills mean that they are unable to easily understand English.

The volunteers have played an important educational and advocacy role and have had a positive impact on reducing stigma and discrimination relating to HIV and AIDS and TB in prisons, which has been especially important due to a TB outbreak.

Following HIV and AIDS awareness and anti-stigma campaigns, led by CBHFA inmate volunteers, in two prisons:

- Over 56 per cent of prisoners were tested for HIV in Wheatfield Prison. Before the programme, only 2 per cent had been tested.

- In Cloverhill Prison, over 50 per cent of prisoners took part in voluntary HIV testing.

All volunteer inmates have expressed views of being personally empowered and recognizing changes in themselves as a direct result of the programme. “I used to treat people the way they treated me and worked for myself independently. After volunteering, I believe in myself, I can do better. I do more volunteer work and help others – money is not important. I am less selfish. I am loyal to the team. I value life!” explains one volunteer inmate.

The Irish Red Cross volunteer inmates are regularly involved in surveys aimed at improving health and hygiene, as well as local knowledge about relevant health issues.

Today, the initiative is being implemented in ten prisons across Ireland. It has benefited 3,273 prisoners directly and 9,829 indirectly, including staff and the families of prisoners. Evaluation of the programme has demonstrated a significant impact in terms of improvement within the prison environment, as well as projects that have lead to a significant increase in healthcare awareness and prisoners’ personal well-being.

The Irish Red Cross is identifying ways how inmate volunteers can continue to offer voluntary service in the community after they leave prison. 

To date, the prison programme has won four awards.

CBHFA approach and volunteering has provided a unique opportunity to develop and implement innovative healthcare projects and make universal health coverage possible.

World Health Assembly