As Ireland’s prison population grows, more children are having to cope with the stigma and loneliness of a parent in jail, writes Sheila Wayman in an excellent article in The Irish Times. The article tells of 'Noel's' struggle to re-establish his relationship with his son, 'Alan', following his release.
In 2002, Noel was sentenced to 7 years' imprisonment for supply of drugs. The article details how, while he was in prison, contact was his son was limited to a 6-minute phone call every second day, and around three visits per year. He describes how other prisoners who had more frequent contact found it far easier to return to their families and communities following their release.
"Children such as Alan are the invisible victims of crime and the penal system. They have done nothing wrong but the emotional and practical consequences of having a parent in prison can be profound."
The article focuses on the impact that dramatically increases in Ireland’s prison population are having on families who have to cope with "the stigma, financial hardships, relationship and parenting problems that often arise from having a family member in jail."
Maria Finn, the manager of CASP in Dublin, describes how families of prisoners are frequently treated with the same level of disrespect as the prisoners: "Children of prisoners 'sometimes have a lot of weight on their little shoulders'."
IPRT's Liam Herrick adds:
“Parental imprisonment, even for short periods, can have a devastating effect on family relationships, and contact between parents in prison and their children should be facilitated to the greatest possible extent. Research shows consistently that positive involvement of families supports successful re-settlement of prisoners on release. It has also been shown to reduce re-offending and to reduce the risk of suicide and self-harm among those in custody.”
"Breaking the cycle, in terms of both re-offending and inter-generational crime, is foremost in the minds of professionals and volunteers working with prisoners’ families."
The article also reports on the work of the Prisoners’ Families Infoline (PFI) - a confidential phone and e-mail information service, which also hosts a weekly support group in Tallaght - which is now struggling to maintain levels of service, having recently lost 70% of its income.
"To those who believe that a criminal has forfeited the right to be a parent, she asks: 'What about the child? Has he or she forfeited the right to have that parent?'"
The article also talkes to the Bedford Row Family Project in Limerick, an excellent project which offers counselling and play therapy at its centre, runs a hospitality centre in Limerick Prison, and provides other supports to prisoners' families. The article quotes Manager, Larry de Cléir: “It is in the interest of children that they be brought to visit their imprisoned parent."
IPRT's Liam Herrick adds that Ireland is generally lacking in the provision of child-centered visits, which have been successfully introduced in the UK.
“The purpose of child-centred visits is to provide an opportunity for fathers in particular to bond with their children in a way and in an environment that is not available during regular visits. This includes organising the visits in a specially prepared area, where children can feel comfortable, away from the general prison facilities.” Opportunities presented by active, positive involvement of families and children with prisoners are too important to be missed, he adds.
“The prison system in Ireland needs a radical change of its policies and practices relating to the support it offers to prisoners and families alike.”
The article then looks at gaps in the rehabilitation and reintegration services in Ireland.
An accompanying article, 'Imaginative Steps: Making a Big Difference' looks at the 'DVD Dads' project currently being run in Castlerea Prison in Co Roscommon. The “DVD Dads” programme sees imprisoned fathersfilmed reading a book out loud; the disk and book are then sent to their children.