‘A long way from normal’: Families say visits to prison still restricted post-pandemic

Some children only get to see their parent in-person once a month and experts are concerned that video calls are replacing visits.

By Alice Chambers

PRISON VISITS HAVE not returned to pre-pandemic levels leaving children cut off from their parents in prison.

The Irish Prison Service said that visiting was back to normal in December 2022 but an investigation by Noteworthy has found that visiting restrictions continue in practice due to resource constraints.

The number of children visiting prisons has also not returned to its pre-pandemic level, our analysis can reveal.

Though it has increased since the height of Covid, the number of children visiting is still just 75% of what it was in 2019, despite a significantly larger number of prisoners across the country. Children are suffering as a result.

Over the course of six months, Noteworthy spoke to NGOs, charities, prison workers and families who have or had a parent in prison, collected data from the Irish Prison Service (IPS) and read through hundreds of pages of documents.

Almost 10,000 Irish children have a parent in prison every year. The right of children to have contact with their imprisoned father or mother on a regular basis is enshrined in human rights law. It’s also vital for children’s wellbeing.

Irish research has found that children with a parent in prison are at risk of negative emotional, educational and behavioural outcomes. But contact with imprisoned parents may mitigate that.

“Children’s overall outcomes are improved when they visit and/or remain connected to an imprisoned parent,” said a spokesperson for the Children of Prisoners Europe NGO. Studies have also shown that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they maintain family contact.

20231109_120400 Ryan O'Rourke still remembers the time a prison guard allowed him to hug his father: “It was that impactful.”
Source: Irish Penal Reform Trust

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‘Not back to the way it was’

Prisons shut down entirely for long periods during Covid with some children cut off from parents for more than a year, seeing them only via video call. Visits “returned to normal” in December 2022 according to Amanda Sutton, assistant governor of Wheatfield Prison, speaking at a Children of Prisoners Europe conference in Limerick in June.

Families of prisoners and sources within the prison service say this is not the case.

“It hasn’t gone back to the way it was,” said Kathleen Casey, who has four children under the age of nine and whose husband was in prison before and during the pandemic.

“It is a long, long way from normal,” a source working in the prison service told Noteworthy. All sources within the prison service who spoke to our team asked to remain anonymous for fear of negative consequences.

The Irish Prison Service didn’t directly respond when we put it to them that visiting hadn’t gone back to normal. However, a spokesperson strongly rejected any assertion made by our sources that it doesn’t see the importance of visits.

“Prisoners have visit rights and phone call rights and the Irish Prison Service go to great lengths to ensure same are met,” an IPS spokesperson told Noteworthy. The IPS said that it continued video visiting post-Covid and is rolling out an in-cell phone project.

“At all times the Prison Service does everything it can to facilitate family visits to the fullest extent possible.”

Prisoner numbers up, visiting still down

Around 50,000 children visited prison in the years before the pandemic. This dropped dramatically to a record low of under 3,000 in 2021.

This year, with visiting supposedly back to normal, visits by children are at 75% of pre-pandemic figures, with an estimated 37,000 set to visit this year.

Total visitor numbers are also below the pre-pandemic figures of almost 240,000 visits annually. Even though restrictions have been lifted, there will likely be around 200,000 visitors this year.

That is despite almost 700 extra inmates in Irish prisons compared to 2019.

When this was put to the Department of Justice, a spokesperson said that “in comparing these statistics it is important to note that pre-pandemic there [were] no video visits”. When video visits are included, they said that “more children are getting to have contact with their families” than before the pandemic.

Ryan O’Rourke’s father went to prison when he was a child. On this, he said: “Video calls are probably a huge benefit but I hope it’s not replacing physical visits.”

He still remembers the time a prison guard allowed him to hug his father: “It was that impactful.” He is now an advocate for the rights of children to visit their imprisoned parents.

Less than a third of prisoners received in-person visits, on specific weeks in July and October, from data we requested from the Irish Prison Service (IPS).

John Lonergan, a former prison governor of Mountjoy and Portlaoise Prison who retired in 2010, said this is low, compared to “the old days”.

It’s fair to say that the visiting arrangements have deteriorated.

We found this varied greatly between prisons. For instance, the Dóchas Centre women’s prison in Dublin had one of the lowest proportion of prisoners (15% in July; 24% in October) who had an in-person visit, but across the courtyard in Mountjoy, prisoners had among the highest (42% in July; 46% in October).

Mountjoy is currently full and the Dóchas Centre is the most overcrowded prison in Ireland, at 118% capacity yesterday.

Rights on paper, different in practice

Prison overcrowding and staff shortages mean that rights on paper aren’t always fulfilled in practice.

Prison Rules are set out in law and state that a prisoner is entitled to “not less than one visit” per week. Given video visits are now an option, the IPS clarified to us that these rules relate to physical (in-person) visits.

“There are a number of times when the availability of staff has an impact on the provision of services to prisoners,” the IPS spokesperson told Noteworthy. They also said that the prison population is currently the highest it’s been in the history of the State.

The IPS didn’t respond when we asked how many staff they would need.

As of yesterday, the prison population was over 4,700 – with most prisons at capacity or overcrowded. There are 3,640 family visiting slots per week, according to data obtained by Noteworthy via Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

That does not mean that 3,640 prisoners can have visits every week as visiting slots are not spread evenly between prisons and are not always available.

One Saturday in June, all family visits at Castlerea Prison were cancelled due to staff shortages. It was then – and is still – overcrowded. It also has the lowest visiting capacity of all Irish prisons. The Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said at the time that “cancellation of visits due to staff shortages is infrequent”.

“Already under the current available times for prison visits, there are various obstacles for families and children to meet with their loved ones,” wrote the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) about the cancelled visits. “Any further reduction of this due to staffing issues or otherwise is a concern.”

“The higher the numbers of persons in custody, the more pressure is placed on resources in the prison to ensure the legal obligations of a prisoner are met in attending court appearances/hospital appointments,” the IPS FOI response stated.

This will mean reduction in staff in the prison who otherwise may be able to supervise the visits area to allow visits to take place.

From analysing annual reports, we found that the number of staff per prisoner dropped last year and, without large staff recruitment, will likely fall significantly further this year due to the spike in prisoners. This is in spite of staff numbers increasing over the past five years.

When asked what the Department of Justice is doing to address staff shortages in prisons, a spokesperson said that in Budget 2023, €6.5m was allocated to the IPS for staffing and that “to date in 2023, 205 staff have been recruited”. The spokesperson added:

“Furthermore, Budget 2024 provided an increase of €17m in the Irish Prison Service budget. This includes an additional €12.4m in pay to fund public sector pay increases and additional staff to cope with increasing prisoner numbers and services to prisoners.”

Lack of clarity for families over visiting rules

O’Rourke’s concerns about video visits replacing physical visits weren’t unfounded.

In July, even after visiting was supposedly restored to normal, an IPS spokesperson told us that prisoners were entitled to two physical and two virtual visits per month.

The IPS website also gave this information on visits until late November when it was updated following a number of press requests from Noteworthy.

When we asked, a spokesperson confirmed that a prisoner can have four video calls or four physical visits per month. “It is at the request of the prisoner what their preference is,” they said. “I have notified Operations and they will be reviewing the material on the website to reflect same.”

The IPS website now accurately states prisoners’ visiting entitlements.

Kathleen Casey, whose husband is in Limerick Prison, told Noteworthy that she is only allowed two physical visits a month. She also said the prison only allows her to bring two children per visit.

Limerick had among the lowest proportion of prisoners with visits, according to our analysis of IPS visit data from July and October.

Because of this, each of Casey’s four children only sees their father once a month. Other sources we spoke to confirmed that families have to limit the number of children they bring, even after the Covid restrictions were lifted.

Before Covid, the IPS website made it clear that families could bring an unlimited number of children, although consideration for safety and security regarding numbers was needed.

The IPS said they were unable to comment on individual cases but added “there is no limit on the number of children permitted to visit but this is at the discretion of the Governor”.

“It cannot be a case that a family can have 6/7 children in a communal visiting area without guardians supervising them and they [are] possibly impeding on other visits taking place at the same time causing disruption to those visits.”

In late November, following our press requests, the IPS updated the information on its website regarding the number of children permitted to visit a prison. It has now reverted to what it was pre-pandemic:

“There is no limit on the number of children who can accompany [adult visitors] but… admittance of same is at the discretion of the prison management.”

“Everyone should have the same rights and entitlements while they’re in prison,” Saoirse Brady, the director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust told Noteworthy.

A prison worker told Noteworthy that “technically [all prisons] should all be following the same rulebook but it’s down to the governor.”

Every prison is like their own little kingdom.

We asked Minister McEntee if it is appropriate that some children can only visit their imprisoned parent once a month and what she is doing to address this human rights issue impacting children.

We did not receive a reply from the minister in time for publication despite multiple reminders but a Department spokesperson reiterated its previous responses sent to our team. “At all times the Prison Service does everything it can to facilitate family visits to the fullest extent possible.”

john-lonergan “It’s fair to say that the visiting arrangements have deteriorated” - John Lonergan, pictured in 2004 as governor of Mountjoy.
Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland via RollingNews.ie

Physical visits in demand but often booked out

Despite video visits being brought in and phone calls expanded in response to the pandemic, in-person visits remain in demand, illustrating their importance to both prisoners and their families.

Data analysis by Noteworthy shows that, on average, over 60% of prison visits are still in-person. The Dóchas Centre and Midlands Prison were the only prisons with a higher proportion of video visits.

However, families and experts reported to us that physical visits were being replaced by video visits when the prison visiting schedule was fully booked.

“They’re after manipulating the whole Covid thing to reduce visits,” said retired prison governor John Lonergan. “I’m sure it’s down to cost and I’m sure it’s down to staffing. I’m not saying for a moment that it’s vindictive or anti prisoner,” he said, but “digital visiting has lower staffing needs”.

In response to this, the IPS said: “There is a strong uptake on video visits and in a lot of cases, video calls are the preferred method of visiting. The option of a physical visit remains if requested.”

Gabrielle* told us that she went over a month without visiting her husband Paul* in Midlands Prison earlier this year, only getting video calls, because there were no slots available.

In early November, she also couldn’t see him for two weeks because visits were booked out. In the end, she resorted to taking her two young children out of school for a Thursday visit.

She doesn’t like doing it, but said: “I want my kids to know who their father is.”

*Names have been changed


Read more articles in this series >>


Are family visits a priority for the prison service?

Investigative reporter: Alice Chambers Editor: Maria Delaney

This investigation was supported by a grant from the St Stephen’s Green Trust. Our project was fully editorially independent as outlined in our Fairness Policy.

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform of The Journal.

What’s next? We also want to examine whether anti-social behaviour orders are applied proportionately to children. Help fund this work >>

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