Irish Penal Reform Trust

“I am worried about the lasting impact this will have”: The experiences of people with a family member in prison during COVID-19

10th September 2020

From mid-March 2020, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has received calls from family members of people in prison who are highly concerned about their loved one during the pandemic. After receiving – and continuing to receive – dozens of calls since the COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced, IPRT sought to formally gather some of these experiences through a survey. A link to the survey survey was shared on our website, social media, and disseminated through a network of service providers.

The results of this survey represent the key findings of small-scale survey with a small number of respondents (31), conducted over a three-week period (24 July to 13 August 2020). This is a snapshot and does not claim to be representative of the experiences of all family members of people in prison in Ireland. Nevertheless, it is essential that the experiences captured in the survey are heard, and are used to effect change. We hope the results of this survey will go some way towards raising awareness of the issues faced by children and families with a relative in prison among the public.

The impact on people with a family member in prison during COVID-19 restrictions has been immense. IPRT would like to thank everyone who shared their experiences with us, during what has been a difficult time for them and their families.

Click here for more detailed analysis of the results of the survey, quotes from participants, and IPRT's overview of the policy implications.

[Word cloud of the most common words used in response to open-ended questions in the survey.]

Key statistics

At the point in time the survey was conducted:

  • 87% of participants said their emotional well-being was an issue, as they were concerned about the health and safety of their family member in prison.
  • 71% of participants had experienced issues with using alternative forms of contact (e.g. video calls).
  • Despite these challenges, in an open-ended question that asked if there were measures introduced during the COVID-19 restrictions that would help support family contact in the future, 70% of those who answered this question stated they would like to see video calls retained as an additional measure to visits.
  • Many participants shared concerns with having a maximum of one child visit from 17 August 2020, with some parents saying they might bring no children, as it would be easier than having to pick one.
  • 77% of participants reported that they did not receive any extra phone calls. 80% reported no increased duration of phone calls with their family member. When asked what action could improve family contact while certain restrictions remain in place, in-cell phone provision was weighted the highest.

IPRT Recommendations

  1. As COVID-19 restrictions continue to impact on family contact, the State must ensure that the right to family life and the rights of children who have a parent in prison are upheld. The Oireachtas Committee on Children Disability, Equality and Integration should consider and examine the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the rights of children and their families affected by imprisonment.
  2. IPRT urges that all appropriate actions are taken to support the mental health of prisoners. A commitment in the Programme for Government to establish a high-level cross-departmental taskforce to consider the mental health needs of those in prison should be immediately commenced. This taskforce should include in its remit specific interventions to address the long-term impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the mental health of the prison population.
  3. The Irish Prison Service should consider extending prison visits to thirty minutes in line with the Prison Rules, 2007.
  4. The Irish Prison Service should continually review the maximum number of children who can visit their parent/relative in prison.
  5. Alternative means of supporting family contact should be maintained or introduced, including: the roll-out of in-cell phone provision across the prison estate; increased frequency and length of time on phone calls; video calls to be retained, with enhanced use; and special provisions to be made, as appropriate, to support child-parental contact.

The results of this survey will help to inform our engagements with stakeholders and support both our current and future policy, campaigns, and advocacy work in this area. While there are several steps that could be taken immediately in response to the challenges faced by those with a family member in prison during COVID-19, it is important that positive changes are retained and that the longer-term issues that existed before the pandemic are appropriately addressed, to both minimise disruption in the event of future restrictions, and to meet the needs and fully uphold the rights of everyone with a family member in prison.

For more on our work to protect the health and rights of people in prison during COVID-19, visit the dedicated COVID-19 section of our website.

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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