Dr Kate Dolan

Dr Kate Dolan is a professor of public health at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She has carried out over 100 studies, has published over 270 publications and received $39 million in research funds. She has been a consultant for the International Narcotics Control Board, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. She received a Winston Churchill Fellowship to study managed alcohol programs. She received a Senior Fulbright Fellowship from Kansas State University to study solitary confinement in prison. She established the first methadone clinic for female drug users in Iran.


Profile on Yale Medicine

The National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre

Harm Reduction Australia

ABC's Health Report

Radio National's Dr Norman Swan on the Iranian Drug Treatment Project

ABC Radio Sydney

Institute for Global Development at UNSW


from Chapter 1. Evin Prison

In 2003, I was invited to deliver training on HIV to prison doctors in Iran. After the training, I was taken on a study tour of Iranian prisons. When I asked about women in prison, I was offered a chance to tour their wing within Evin Prison. I had accepted immediately. This was an environment that we see and hear nothing of in the West. To enter the female wing, I had to walk through several metal doors from the male wing. Inside, the walls were white with a pale blue trim. I had just visited eight prisons for men over the last ten days. But it was this visit—to a female prison in Iran—which would have a lasting effect on me. It changed my focus at work, my circle of friends and the way I viewed Iran and Islam. This prison in North West Tehran was newish, having been built in 1971. It sat at the foot of the Alborz Mountains, which are covered in snow in winter. This was the first trip of many I would make to Iran over the next decade.

The foyer of the women’s wing was clean like a hospital, sparse even. We walked down the corridor and there, on the right, was a cell. As we stood in the doorway, all the occupants turned away to hide, holding their chadors—long, flowing capes—up close under their chins. Each woman was wearing the same navy blue and white patterned chador, the prison-issue uniform. Some inmates had small children with them, and a few had babes in their arms. My visiting party comprised my interpreter, my guide, a prison guard and me.

Even with a borrowed hejab—the mandatory headscarf to cover a woman’s hair—everyone could see I was a foreigner. Strands of my blonde hair protruded from my pale hejab and my peaches and cream complexion meant I was from somewhere other than Iran. The female inmates were taken aback, suspicious even, to see me, as were their male peers when I was in their prisons. The interpreter introduced us to the women. As the interpreter spoke, they slowly turned around. Without exception they looked harmless, terrified even. These prisoners did not need to be locked up for society’s safety. They were here for punishment.

Female offenders tend to commit fraud and other non-violent crimes, but still I was intrigued to find out what crimes had resulted in their imprisonment. You realise as a prison visitor you should refrain from asking someone what the reason is for their imprisonment. I did ask the interpreter, though, about the sort of crimes, in general, they might have committed that resulted in their incarceration. He said a variety of offences, which, like in most countries; revolve around income generating scams to raise money to buy drugs. Female prisoners the world over are twice as likely as male ones to have a drug problem.

As we entered the first prison cell, I was surprised at how large, airy and light it was. Two bunk beds were pushed up against two walls that met at a corner. White cotton makeshift curtains hanged down from the top bunk, softening the metal bedframes and hiding the bottom bunk bed. The prisoners’ eyes ferreted across the room and back and forth to each member in our party. Then my guide explained the reason for my presence, on this warm sunny day in a female prison in Iran, of all places. He told them I was from Australia examining the programs Iran was implementing to prevent HIV. He informed them of my workshop for prison doctors, where we discussed treating females who had a heroin problem so they could avoid prison. I knew any mention of heroin and ways to avoid prison would be of interest to those who used drugs.

My student and I had delivered a three-day workshop to Iranian prison doctors. The workshop covered everything from sharing syringes and transmitting HIV to conjugal visits, condoms and homosexual sex. I remember thinking how would these Muslim men, as all participants were male, respond to two western women discussing homosexual sex in prison? Homosexual sex is illegal in Iran. Offenders are hanged. But the participants were all doctors, so I had hoped that they were pragmatic about the repertoire of human sexual behaviour. One key topic was strategies to prevent HIV. In practice it was rather straightforward, but in reality, many issues hindered prevention. Homophobia and a dislike of drug users discouraged prison authorities from providing condoms and other assistance. Even though methadone is a very effective treatment, authorities disliked it because it is a powerful narcotic drug with euphoric qualities. Most prison authorities preferred that inmates went cold turkey even if that approach was a resounding failure. It was unclear whether our proposed HIV prevention actions were going to be embraced or rejected outright.

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