On the day of Susie’s* First Holy Communion this year, her mother booked her a hair appointment and a visit to Limerick Prison.
Her father has been an inmate there for three years. His eight-year-old daughter wanted to take a photo with him in her white dress. “She was really looking forward to it,” her mother Kathleen Casey said.
Mother and daughter went from the hairdresser, to the church, to the prison – only to be told they weren’t allowed in. “They said I didn’t have a visit made but I did,” said Casey. “It really upset [Susie] and upset her day.
“She was crying… but there was nothing I could do.”
An investigation by Noteworthy, published yesterday, reported that prison visiting has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, leaving children cut off from their parents in prison.
We found that overcrowding and understaffing mean that rights on paper aren’t always fulfilled in practice, meaning some families go without the visits they’re entitled to.
But families say that even what would be considered ‘normal’ visiting conditions are not fit for children. They relayed difficulty booking visits, gruelling travel to prisons, traumatic security procedures even for young children, and then, not being able to hug a parent when they finally get to see them.
The Irish Prison Service said that “at all times the Prison Service does everything it can to facilitate family visits to the fullest extent possible”.
Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.
Almost 10,000 children have a parent in prison in Ireland over the course of a year. They are invisible victims of the Irish criminal justice system, serving what one report called “a second sentence parallel to the imprisoned parent”, through no fault of their own.
Experts told us how vital parental contact is for children. This is a right enshrined in international law and the Irish Prison rules. Additionally, imprisoned parents who can maintain family contact have been shown to have lower rates of recidivism.
Noteworthy spoke to over 20 people and organisations involved in the criminal justice sector, including a number of families with members in prison. They told us of a system that is failing many families, with children’s rights unfulfilled and some left unable to cope.
Many spoke to us on condition of anonymity to protect themselves from stigma or out of fear of negative consequences.
‘I want my kids to know who their father is’
Mary* is not sure how long she’ll be able to cope with the punishing trip to Portlaoise Prison.
Every Wednesday, she picks up her three eldest children from school at 11am, straps them and her baby into a borrowed car, and drives two hours for a 2.30pm visit with their father.
She’s only able to borrow the car during the week. By public transport, it’s at least a seven-hour round trip that involves two buses for the 30-minute visit. She’s done it twice and told us it was “complete mental torture… especially when you’re by yourself [with four kids], it’s about 15 times harder”.
Her eldest son Patrick*, who is primary school age, has ADHD and particularly hates the bus. So, Mary takes them out of school.
[The prison visit] is my whole Wednesday, from the moment I wake up, and I won’t be home ‘til seven or eight o’clock.
According to research, kids with a parent in prison “have been shown to experience negative educational outcomes”.
All the families we spoke to are left with an impossible choice between the children seeing their father or going to school as weekend visiting times can be booked up or not available.
Noteworthy analysis showed that more than 60% of visiting times were during normal secondary school hours (9am to 4pm). This increases to more than 70% if only closed prisons are considered. Ireland has 13 prisons, only three of which are open or semi-open. An open prison is one with much lower security.
Most other visiting times are at the weekend. Cork was the only prison that had regular weekday visiting hours in the evening.
“International practice indicates that prison visits are during the day as public transport is at its peak during such hours,” the Irish Prison Service said. “In relation to video visits, they take place predominantly in the evening time with the vast majority taking place after 4pm.”
Gabrielle’s* two young children waited a year during the pandemic before they could see their father Paul* in prison. She tries to get weekend visits but when they’re booked out, she has to take the kids out of school. She doesn’t like it but said: “I want my kids to know who their father is.”
Kathleen Casey is in a similar position with both physical visits and video calls. She told Noteworthy that when she explained to a prison officer that her children were in school and asked for different video times, she was told: “That’s the way [it] is”.
She added that the video technology has been unreliable for her so she doesn’t “bother with them”.
In response to booking availability, the IPS told Noteworthy that staff availability can impact services. A spokesperson also said that the IPS is working to fix technological issues with video calls.
“In the Open Centres, namely Loughan House and Shelton Abbey, visits can take place outside, weather permitting, which means more visits can be facilitated. This is not available in closed prisons for obvious security reasons,” the IPS said in response to our FOI request. It also stated:
Families tend to visit more at the weekend than during the week so again that places separate pressures on visiting arrangements.
This can be made more difficult when prisoners are transferred and families need to get used to potentially longer journeys as well different booking systems and times.
When we asked whether the IPS considers family access when transferring prisoners, a spokesperson said that they were “acutely aware of the importance of assisting prisoners to maintain close contact with family and friends while in custody”.
But they added that keeping prisoners close to their families “is not always possible as a prison may be overcrowded, [a] prisoner may be under threat in a location or for security reasons certain prisoners cannot mix in a prison”.
The prison population is at the highest it’s been in the history of the state, according to the Irish Prison Service.
Children find prison security stressful and scary
All except three prisons in Ireland are traditional closed prisons. When children visit, they are put through rigorous security which is “traumatic”, according to Saoirse Brady, the director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) – a charity set up to monitor human rights abuses in Irish prisons. She questions whether this is appropriate.
The prison service describes it as “airport-style” security but it can entail much more than that.
First, a family must take off their shoes and some clothing before going through a metal detector.
After the metal detector, there’s often a sniffer dog. Sometimes there are narcotic swabs.
Many of the children whose mothers we spoke to are scared of the dog. If it sits down, that’s supposed to be an indication of drugs and the visit might be cancelled – even when guards then manually search a person.
Casey said this has happened to her three or four times and her kids can’t understand it. “They get cranky and angry and they’re reluctant to go back,” she said. “How can a dog stop you? Why would they choose a dog over you?”
Ryan O’Rourke’s father was in prison when he was a child. Now he is an advocate for children’s visiting rights. He told us that on one visit he tried to make to his dad, the dog sat down three times in a row and he wasn’t allowed to visit.
“Searches never showed up anything. If they did, you’d be arrested,” he said. He was banned from visits for a month and his mum had to write a letter to the prison to get them reinstated.
Noteworthy put these concerns around sniffer dogs to the IPS and asked what they are doing to address them. A spokesperson said that the IPS “does not comment on security or operational related matters”.
Mary always finds it incredibly stressful when she brings her baby through Portlaoise Prison, Ireland’s maximum security prison.
Children don’t deserve this when they’re going into prison.
She carries her baby through the metal detector on her hip. But that’s not enough.
“I understand it’s a high security prison… [but] you’ve no need to hold him by the two armpits and search him, pat him down, and go over him with a medical detector again front and back. He’s a baby.”
Visiting rights versus security culture
The threat of a cancelled visit hangs over families. “You can’t guarantee when you go in there you’re getting in there,” said Casey. They told us that they put up with it, they don’t have a choice.
“That’s all me and my children have every week, going to Portlaoise and seeing him and making sure he’s okay,” Mary said. “When it’s only one visit a week, to be honest, we think the world of it because that’s one half hour that we get to see him.”
This hasn’t changed since Ryan O’Rourke was a child. Each visit felt like the roll of a dice and when he got turned away, he said “the disappointment is massive”.
“A preoccupation with security” has relegated the rights of children to quality prison visits to a secondary position, the group Children of Prisoners in Europe claims.
The IPS told us that it does not comment on security or operational matters. A spokesperson said “prisoners have visit rights and phone call rights and the Irish Prison Service go to great lengths to ensure same are met”.
It has done this, the spokesperson said “by extending the video visiting option post-Covid and by undertaking a new project that will see prisoner families allowed to make phone calls directly to prisoners in their cells on a daily basis”.
The use of video videos as part of its “longer term plans for the support of prisoners” was mentioned in the new IPS Strategy 2023-2027 which was launched yesterday. Prison visits barely get a mention in the strategy otherwise.
In mid-November, Gabrielle told us that it was her third week without a visit of any kind.
I have a visit on Friday but I couldn’t visit him for the last two, three weeks because they were fully booked.
Her husband has been placed on an ‘enhanced’ regime in Wheatfield Prison for good behaviour which should mean more visiting time than the standard 30-minutes per week. Yet, when we asked whether she’d ever been offered more she said “not a hope”.
In September, the IPRT raised this specific issue with the director general of the prison service Caron McCaffery. According to the IPRT, the prison service told them that “there is not enough staff to facilitate enhanced visits at Wheatfield”.
The Irish Prison Service said they declined to comment. Noteworthy requested an interview with Caron McCaffery but the IPS said she was not available due to previous commitments.
Noteworthy asked the IPS for the number of visitors turned away and the reasons this occurred. In their response to our FOI request, the IPS stated that this “information is not recorded by the prisons”.
A report in 2017 highlighted the conflict between children’s visiting rights and the prison culture of security. It found that it was “very clear that there is a need for initiatives to support families affected by imprisonment”.
It stated that comments from a number of prison officers interviewed for the report reflected “a potential conflict over the perception of the role of the prison service as one of security over one of care and rehabilitation”. This included one officer who said:
“Families were seen as a security risk and a pain in the ass, that they were coming into our prison and we knew from experience that when people come into our prison they bring in drugs, they bring in phones.”
Another said: “I am kind of conflicted in this in that sometimes I wonder is this whole notion of family friendly and face painting and fucking bouncy castles, this is a jail.”
Ryan O’Rourke asked for empathy: “Kids haven’t done anything wrong but they probably think that they have,” he said. Children don’t care about what their parent has done, he added, they just want to see them.
The IPS told Noteworthy that the prison service is “built on respect for human dignity… our work is underpinned by high standards in accountability and support to all those we serve.”
‘A nice officer let her have a small bit of a hug’
After all that, the kids may only be allowed minimal contact with their parent.
Kathleen Casey rebooked Susie’s Holy Communion visit for two weeks later. They went back to the hairdresser and got her dressed up again in her white dress.
Susie saw her dad through a screen. At the end of the visit, they stood together in front of a wall for the photo. She wasn’t supposed to touch her dad but Kathleen said that “there was a nice officer on and he let her have a small bit of a hug”.
Mary said that her kids can give their father a kiss at the beginning and end of the visit, but otherwise can’t touch him at all. “It’s hard trying to keep your kids away from their father on the other side of the table”.
Ryan O’Rourke explained how painful that was for him as a child. “If you made a movement, the prison guards would snap at you,” he said. Once, he was allowed to hug his dad: “I still remember it, it was that impactful.”
Prisoners also find this difficult. In the 2017 report, an imprisoned father with a five-year-old son said: “He’d be hugging me, kissing me… but then an officer telling you, you can’t do it. They have control. The way I look at it is the officers have control over how much interaction you have with your son.”
The IPS did not respond directly to our question about children being able to hug a parent. A spokesperson did say that “each prison provides [a] screened visits area, counter style visits area and open family visits” and “all visits are supervised”.
When it comes to screened visits, the spokesperson said that “the screens are permanently placed for security reasons”.
Rights unfulfilled but some change anticipated
Concerns around visits was one of the five most common issues raised by prisoners in their letters to the Office of the Inspector of Prisons, according to its latest annual report.
“On paper, Ireland made good progress early on with respect to children’s rights yet implementation has been complex,” the Children of Prisoners Europe network told Noteworthy. But a “preoccupation with security relegat[es] the rights of children to quality prison visits as secondary”.
Since overcrowding and understaffing are causing such problems for families trying to visit, we asked the Department of Justice what it was doing about this. A spokesperson said that to date this year “205 staff have been recruited” and that Budget 2024 included “an additional €12.4m” for pay increases and additional staff.
Experts are somewhat hopeful that change is on the horizon for some prisoners as the new Limerick Women’s Prison opened earlier this month. Noteworthy had a tour of the facility back in June.
A colourful, open-plan visiting room for children is at the centre of the prison design. The prison service said it envisaged children coming in to do homework with their mothers after school and even cook a meal with them.
The IPS also recently held a ‘Kids Camp’ in Shelton Abbey which is an open prison for men. A spokesperson called this an “unprecedented event” the aim of which was to “to strengthen family connections and provide a memorable experience for children with a parent in custody”.
The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) praised these initiatives and welcomed the fact the IPS is modernising the prison estate but underlined that there’s no open prison for women and pointed out that on the day Limerick Prison opened “the Dóchas Centre at Mountjoy was at 120% capacity”.
Despite years of promises, there are no national services or supports provided by the State for children and families of prisoners, although this may change soon.
The recruitment of a national family liaison officer is finally going ahead, having been promised in 2019. A long-awaited policy on visiting conditions standards is also expected to be developed following the recruitment.
In June, deputy ombudsman for children Nuala Ward said that “we all know that the children of prisoners are invisible in government policy” and that the Ombudsman’s office should “ensure these children are recognised as a specific cohort” in the new children’s strategy being developed at the time by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.
We asked the Office of the Ombudsman for Children (OCO) what it had done on this issue. A spokesperson said that over the past year the OCO has been engaging with multiple stakeholders and ministers about “teenagers at risk” and have commissioned a report on this cohort based on a roundtable involving Tusla, the gardaí, the HSE and others.
They added that the office has recommended that the new department strategy should be used as a “vehicle to drive a focus on securing the changes needed for these children”.
The strategy, Young Ireland, was published last week. For the first time, this included a section dedicated to children of prisoners.
In it there is a commitment to publish a policy on visiting standards, “establish a child-friendly visiting space in every prison in Ireland, and consult with children and families in the development and implementation” of visiting policies. All prison staff must also be given an opportunity to do child rights training by 2028.
Families want more visiting time and better visiting hours but they told us that simple changes would make a big improvement – friendlier rooms, some toys, being able to hug.
Mary’s children have a “very, very close bond” with their father and find him being in prison extremely tough.
“He is barely allowed to give them a kiss and a hug,” she said, “he isn’t let hold them… which is very hard on us all.
“The children are not coping, they’re completely lost.”
*Names have been changed
Are family visits a priority for the prison service?
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