Irish Penal Reform Trust Children with parents in prison are silently serving sentences of their own this Christmas

23rd December 2022

IPRT's Executive Director Saoirse Brady writes about the impact of extremely limited access children have to their parents in prison at Christmas time for

In the opinion piece in, Saoirse Brady writes;

We are all facing into our third Christmas since the arrival of Covid-19. 

While some public health measures remain, restrictions have become less so. But for the estimated 6,000 children with a parent in prison in Ireland, restrictions on visiting family over the Christmas period existed long before Covid-19.

But due to the specific Covid-19 restrictions, many have seen their Mum or Dad only a handful of times, behind Perspex screens, while wearing masks, struggling to hear what is being said, unable to touch or hug.

Last year, one woman with a partner in prison told us here at the Irish Penal Reform Trust that she brought her three-year-old child to see his daddy for the first time in two years. She was excited but nervous too.

Because her little boy was too young to understand the restrictions, he thought he couldn’t hug his dad because he had chickenpox some weeks before. Weeks later he said, “mammy now I’ve no more chickenpox, daddy will give me a hug”. His mother made the tough decision to stop visiting at all as it would “break his little heart” not to hug his Dad.

Families with a loved one in prison have been subjected to restrictions longer than most others. In May this year, physical visits were gradually reinstated but limited to fortnightly visits. In July, the screens came down resulting in a real sense of relief for people in prison. However, it was only last week that weekly physical visits were reinstated, just in time for that all-important Christmas time.

A void

For thousands of children like this little boy, Christmas will offer little respite. While many people are looking forward to holiday reunions with much-loved family members, for children with a family member in prison, someone they love will be absent. An empty chair at the dinner table. An empty space in front of the Christmas movie. Someone missing as presents are unwrapped.

While other children may be wondering if Santa got their letter, for children with parents in prison the hope is that their homemade Christmas card will still be legible after being photocopied. Or that it will arrive in time for Christmas at all, even if it was sent weeks ago.

Even with the news of more frequent physical visits being available, prison visits are restricted to only one 30-minute visit per week. The number of people who can go into a prison for a visit is also limited, meaning larger families must choose which of their children get to see their loved one. 

Rather than face the impossible choice of picking one child over another, disrupting a child’s school day, the cost of childcare and the burden of travel, many caregivers made the difficult decision to completely forego a physical visit.  

No parent should have to make that choice but many parents will have to this Christmas.

The introduction of video calls in prison has been transformative for many families. Children can sit in the familiar environment of their homes, with the comforts of their toys and pets, with some children now able to show their bedrooms to their parent for the first time. However, 20-minute video visits are no replacement for seeing your Mum or Dad in-person.

Childhood trauma

The trauma of having a parent in prison is classed as one of ten ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACEs). Generally, when a child experiences a traumatic loss, such as the death of a loved one, or parental separation, this is met with supports. For children with a parent in prison, the suffering remains hidden often due to ongoing stigma. Supports are few and far between.

There is no national service providing support to families affected by imprisonment in Ireland. While there are pockets of remarkable practice, such as Bedford Row in Limerick and New Directions in Dublin, levels of service provision vary drastically around the country.

In the absence of dedicated supports, children can feel blamed for their parent’s actions by their peers and by society. Last year, the European Commission established the European Child Guarantee, which aims to prevent social exclusion by targeting supports for children in precarious family situations, explicitly naming children with an imprisoned parent. We know that lone-parent households are much more likely to experience poverty and deprivation.

While we don’t have an exact figure, we do know that thousands of children lose a parent to prison each year. Despite the scale of the issue, these children remain largely invisible and do not feature as a priority in government policy. There is no national strategy for children affected by parental imprisonment. The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth needs to take the lead in this area. This cannot be achieved, however, by one department alone. We need to work together, across specialities and departments, State and civil society, to ensure that these children do not fall through the cracks.

While children experience a heavy burden, the weight of imprisonment is carried by the entire family. The harm imprisonment causes to families is one reason why prison should be used as a last resort, with community-based punishments prioritised as much as possible.

Other countries take a child’s rights into consideration when sentencing a parent and have done this for quite some time. We need to catch up.

We know that maintaining positive family contact reduces reoffending, is better for society, and can have immeasurable life-long benefits for children. Supporting these familial relationships is a no-brainer.

This Christmas, and year-round, we should give the gift of compassion to these children and families who are silently serving sentences of their own, for crimes they didn’t commit.

Read the full opinion piece on here.

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