THE recent spotlight shone on the conditions in Cork Prison is most welcome. A public debate on the difficulties experienced by the inmates due to the current conditions is important, not least because it can dispel the often held public belief that prison is a holiday camp.
One critical issue which received little attention was the impact of the physical institution on prisoners’ families. While there has been some recognition given to the fact that visiting conditions are “known to be inadequate”, this barely captures the reality of prison visits for families.
Visiting Cork Prison involves a number of stressful stages for family members. Security is naturally tight, with visitors subject to body scanners similar to those in airports, as well as sniffer dogs. Yet even after this, visits are non-contact.
This is particularly difficult for children, as one seven-year-old noted in a recent Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) report. “The one thing I hate... is that you don’t really get to hug them.” In addition, the visiting room is noisy and set out in a way that it is physically difficult for smaller children even to see their fathers. Some families prefer not to take children because of the stress and fear it creates.
These visiting conditions fall far short of international standards (including the European Prison Rules 2006 and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners 1975).
These legal regimes require that prisoners get visits in an environment that enables them to maintain and develop family ties. It is clear that current visiting conditions do not allow prisoners and their families maintain normal relationships.
The inadequacy of the visiting arrangements in many Irish prisons is conveyed by the Report of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture following its visit to Ireland in 2010.
The report said, in reference to Cork Prison, that the visiting arrangements were “totally unsuitable”, the noise levels were unacceptable, and that the ban on physical contact, enforced by disciplinary punishment for prisoners, was “unreasonable, given the search procedures in place.”
The response of the Irish Prison Service (IPS) was to state it had no intention of changing the system.
St Nicholas Trust, a voluntary charitable organisation based in Cork City, has worked constructively with the IPS, and Cork Prison in particular, to improve some of the visiting arrangements. It offers a hospitality service for visitors to the prison in the waiting room. This includes tea/coffee, a listening ear and welcome smile, and activities for the children while visitors wait to be allowed entry to the prison.
This service is staffed by volunteers and is not supported by state funds.
In addition, the trust runs a family support group, an information helpline, and publishes information on visiting Cork Prison, children and prison, and prisoner re-integration.
One important goal of St Nicholas Trust is the development of a greater understanding of the impact of prison on families and children. It also aims to work closer with the IPS in terms of reaching this goal.
While the system has demonstrated an increasing awareness of the benefits and importance of maintaining family bonds, there is still a long way to go.
In 2012, the IPRT report Picking up the Pieces: the Rights and Needs of Children and Families Affected by Imprisonment recommended that the IPS facilitate child-friendly visits, which could be significantly supported by the appointment of children’s officers, following on from good practice in Danish prisons. These officers would work on “securing the rights and needs of children of imprisoned parents”. They would be prisoner officers specifically trained in areas such as children’s rights and family support.
This relatively straightforward initiative, which would involve no extra hiring of staff but a redesignation of some prisoner officers and some additional training, could go a long way toward ensuring that Ireland meets its European and international legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, respectively.
Finally, despite the fact that imprisonment affects many children and families in Ireland, these people are largely ignored by the criminal justice system, the media and society more generally.
In fact, the IPS estimates that 200,000 adult family and friend visits, and 80,000 child visits take place each year. In relation to children, there is no clear data as to how many children are directly affected — a conservative estimate suggests 4,300 children have a father in prison, and 142 a mother.
These children are both vulnerable and largely ignored with the few specialised services available to them provided by voluntary organisations, such as St Nicholas Trust in Cork and Bedford Row in Limerick.
So long as children and families of prisoners remain unseen nationally, their needs will be neglected both in policy and service development. Yet, ultimately, they are critical to the successful re-integration of their loved ones back into society.
* Fiona Donson is chairwoman of St Nicholas Trust .