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Prisoners want to be able to use Skype to contact their families

Overcrowding, nutrition, healthcare and access to mental health services remain as issues for prisons in Ireland.

Image: AlesiaKan via Shutterstock

PRISONERS SHOULD BE given greater access to more ways of contacting their families, a report on the future of Ireland’s prison system has recommended.

According to the Progress in the Penal System report by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), both imprisoned parents and their children benefit from increased and varied contact.

The organisation would like to see better access to phone calls and permission for prisoners to use a video messaging service such as Skype to see their family – something that is not permitted currently.

Currently, prisoners are allowed one monitored call a week to a family member or friend. If the prisoner is under 18 years old, they may make two calls per week.

“I saw a female prisoner who when her children came to visit, she wasn’t allowed to touch them,” Deirdre Malone, executive director of the IPRT, told TheJournal.ie.

When you’re a little child, that’s a huge way to preserve those bonds with your family. Those kind of rules can really break down those relationships.

She said that children’s experiences of going to visit their parents are significantly affected by being searched when they go in, seeing the sniffer dogs and prison officers in uniform. Many feel scared.

“The really interesting thing is that when dads continue their relationship with their kids, they’re less likely to reoffend,” says Malone.

If they can chat to their child when they come home from school about their homework, it has a huge impact on dads – it’s less likely that those dads will return to prison because they have an incentive.

She says that having a job to maintain, a family to provide for or a relationship to focus on helps give prisoners “something to work towards” on release, and makes them less likely to reoffend.

“If you have a family you need to provide for, they’re the things that give people hope. Anything that breaks down those things can be destructive.”

Although data on the number of children with a parent in prison is not collected in Ireland, it’s estimated that there are around 6,000 children with either a mother or father in jail at any one time.

The IPRT is also recommending that better supports are made available for children who have a parent in prison, citing mental health and educational programmes.

In July, the Irish Prison Service committed to ensuring that all visiting conditions across the estate are child-friendly within 12 months.

Prisons in Ireland

There are 14 prisons in Ireland, which hold a population of around 3,500 prisoners. That figure is steadily decreasing.

Between January 2014 and September 2016, 73 prisoners were hospitalised because of actual or suspected assaults; and 34 of these incidents occurred in Mountjoy Prison (that’s 47%).

Around 76 ‘Category A’ complaints were made by prisoners in 2016, with the largest number of them coming from Midlands Prison.

Malone says that overall, there is a need to see what is causing people to commit crimes in the first place to prevent it from happening – without “getting political”.

“In Norway, it’s expected that when people leave prison, they go back to their communities, equipping them with the tools and supports they need when they’re released.”

“A more sophisticated look at why crime happens is needed… there’s a sense that you either care about victims or you care about offenders, but that isn’t really the case.”

She said a look at both the victims and the perpetrators of crime is the most important thing.

Mental health and addiction treatment

Other than a greater emphasis on supports for prisoners’ families and the ongoing problem with overcrowding in prison, a better approach was needed towards helping treat prisoners with mental health problems or drug addictions.

Around 85% of women who are in prison suffer from addiction issues, compared to 70% of men.

Malone says that addiction is a ”hugely significant issue”, and efforts should be made to divert people with drug and alcohol problems away from the criminal systems. The IPRT are advocating for treatment services within prisons, drug free wings, reducing waiting lists for treatment and additional resources for post release addiction services.

“Somebody may have access to good support within the prison system, but if there’s no access upon their release, then all that good work will be wasted,” Malone says.

This year, between 20-30 people are in prison are awaiting a transfer to the Central Mental Hospital at any given time.

That’s an ongoing issue for us – prison is used as a warehouse for holding people with serious mental health issues. They should be transferred as soon as possible. 

Read: ‘People we recruit from prison are on average more loyal, more honest and stay with us for longer’

Read: ‘It doesn’t make sense to isolate people further’: Is prison the best solution to crime in Ireland?

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