FOLLOWING SIX MONTHS of research and consultations, the Irish Penal Reform Trust has made a number of recommendations to Government, Gardaí, the Court Service and the Prison Service about how best to handle the rights and needs of prisoners’ families.
The report, entitled Picking up the Pieces: The Rights and Needs of Children and Families Affected by Imprisonment, highlights the experiences of children who have a parent in an Irish prison.
The “collateral” issue of the how imprisonment affects children was examined by the agency because they are usually the “hidden” victims of the penal system.
According to researchers, families “must endure their own sentence, despite not having perpetrated any crime”.
Following the investigation, the IPRT has put forward a number of recommendations for change. Among the requests, the trust asked that that the best interests of the child should be a key consideration in proceedings where a parent – particularly the primary caregiver – may be remanded or sentenced to custody. It believes the recent constitutional amendment on children’s rights may provide a platform for future legislation.
It also suggested the establishment of a forum so children in similar situations can meet each other, thus reducing the associated stigma.
The report calls on Gardaí to receive specific training so special guidelines can be adhered to when arresting an individual with children. The detention should be made in such a way as to minimise the impact on the family.
Commenting on prison visits, the authors believe family-friendly visits should be available across the entire prison estate. “At a minimum, the imprisoned person should be able to sit at a roundtable and play with his/her child,” they said.
The audio or video recordings of books such as Storybook Dads and Storybook Mums which allow children to hear their parents tell them a story should be extended, according to the IPRT. The initiative helps parents maintain relationships with their children while in prison, they say.
Other recommendations included:
To the Government:
- An agency should be established for the provision of information and support to children and families affected by imprisonment;
- A charter of rights for affected children should be developed;
- A Government-led inter-agency strategy for support children should be developed;
- Community-based mental health supports should be available and accessible to all children affected by imprisonment when required;
- Information leaflets and support services should be available to help decide whether to tell a child about his/her parent’s jail time;
- A campaign should be set up to educate the public about the impact of imprisonment on children and families.
To the Courts Service:
- Child impact statements could permit the voice of the child to be heard when a custodial sentence is being considered;
- Information leaflets and video/audio-recordings outlining the court process should be available to inform families about the committal process. Age- appropriate leaflets should also be available for children;
- All judges should receive awareness training in the impact of imprisonment, as well as training in the rights of the family and the child.
To the Prison Service:
- The number of children with a parent in prison should be recorded by the Irish Prison Service, in order to plan services for children affected by imprisonment more effectively;
- Temporary Release should be deployed frequently for the purposes of maintaining the family relationship and for re-integrating the individual back into the family unit;
- Children’s officers (preferably non-uniformed) should be deployed in each prison to allow for visits to be child-friendly and to minimise any anxieties children may have;
- A properly staffed phone booking system across the entire prison estate is required at all times to ensure that families can book their visits without frustration. A supplementary electronics booking system would be ideal;
- Prison governors in each prison should take into account the best interests of the child when deciding on non-contact visits. The standard practice of screened visits in Cloverhill Prison and St. Patrick’s Institution should end;
- An evaluation is required of the current Skype pilot programme in Limerick Prison with a view to considering the expansion of the use of Skype in other prisons, particularly for foreign prisoners or prisoners whose families are abroad;
- A Mother and Baby Unit should be established in all female prisons in line with international best practice;
- The Irish Prison Service should facilitate the father-child relationship to a similar extent to which it accommodates the mother-child relationship in the Dóchas Centre by creating a child-friendly atmosphere across all prison visiting areas.
To the media:
- Consideration should also be given to developing a mechanism(s) whereby families can raise concerns about invasive media coverage before publication or broadcast.
To the Department of Education:
- The vulnerability of children affected by imprisonment should be considered in the development of anti-bullying strategies in schools;
- Teacher training, particularly at primary level, should sensitise teachers to the particular needs and vulnerabilities of children with a parent/parents in prison, so that they are better able to understand and constructively address any academic or behavioural problems that may arise as a consequence.