North’s prisons had 25,000 child visits last year
Highest number of children visiting prisons came from postcode in Derry
A total of 25,000 child visits were recorded by the Northern Ireland Prison Service during 2013, a figure that has emerged as a new scheme aims to maintain contact between inmates and their families.
The scale of child visits to jails was reported by The Detail , an investigative news website based in Belfast, after it requested a breakdown of visitors to the three main prison sites in the North.
The home postcode area of the child visitors was also provided by the prison service, with the highest number of children coming from a postcode in Derry.
Of the 5,000 individual child visitors, some visited just once, while others entered jails multiple times.
The relationship the 4,865 children had with the prisoner they were visiting was not disclosed but it is likely many had – and could still have – a parent serving a sentence in Maghaberry prison near Moira, Magilligan prison in Limavady or Hydebank Wood in Belfast.
On a daily basis across Europe it is estimated that 800,000 children live separated from their parents due to them serving time in prison.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s Northern Ireland has described children with a parent in prison as the forgotten victims of crime.
Research has shown that children with a parent in prison experience a range of poor outcomes in relation to wellbeing, education and relationships.
They can also be more vulnerable to spending time in prison themselves as adults.
Prisoners who maintain contact with their families are less likely to reoffend.
Some 20 per cent of the total 126,505 visits to Northern Ireland’s prisons in 2013 were by children (25,031).
The new data shows that BT48 in Derry – which includes the Cityside, Ballynagard, Coshquin, Rosemount, The Collon and Culmore areas – was the postcode area in Northern Ireland with the highest number of resident children visiting prisons. A total of 350 individual children from this area visited jails last year.
This was followed by BT12 in Belfast (Falls Road, Sandy Row and The Village) where 339 children who visited prisons lived.
View Child visitors to Northern Ireland's prisons in a full screen map
The Detail visited Maghaberry prison to report on a new scheme in Maghaberry run jointly by Barnardo’s Northern Ireland’s Parenting Matters team and the Northern Ireland Prison Service.
The project is the only one of its type in a state prison in the UK. It is inspired by a similar scheme which operates in the private Parc prison in south Wales.
The Families Matter programme involves male prisoners who are parents signing up for a 17-week programme of activities with a focus on family life and family relationships.
Practical classes include the men learning how to support their children’s learning in school, managing a family budget and cooking healthy meals.
At all times they are encouraged to think about the impact of their choices and decisions on their family.
Participating prisoners – who must remain drug-free – can also take part in an extra child-friendly monthly visit with their families.
So far 90 prisoners have taken part in Families Matter.
He was jailed for his involvement in a drug smuggling operation and has been in prison for eight months. He is due to be released in May 2015.
He said: “It’s not really me doing the sentence. It’s more so at home, Michelle and the child doing the sentence. I just can’t leave here.
“The course is a positive thing and as a new dad it educates me. It made me see that things needed to change.”
Michelle said: “Keith went inside when Ella was three weeks old so I have been on my own from the start.
“The longer visits allow Keith to bond with Ella. When he comes home she will know who her daddy is, which is very important.”
Barnardo’s NI has been working across all of Northern Ireland’s prison sites for more than 20 years with a range of parenting programmes aimed at maintaining contact and supporting parent/child relationships.
The charity works with anyone in custody who is a parent, step-parent or carer for children.
Deirdre Sloan is manager of Barnardo’s NI Parenting Matters service.
She said: “Many parents when they are in custody believe that they can’t still be in the role of parent, that they have lost all ability to parent and don’t know how to maintain their relationships.
“Our programme is very much about working with parents on what they can do rather than what they can’t do, helping them to see that even though they are physically separated from their children there are many things they can do.
“A core part of the programme is getting them to reflect on the kind of parent they are and the kind of parent they want to be.”
Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister David Ford said: “Northern Ireland Prison Service has been working with the children and families of offenders for many years.
“Through statutory and voluntary partnership working, positive parenting techniques are developed which are aimed at increasing the stability of a child’s life during and after parental imprisonment.
“The Families Matter programme is an excellent example where Barnardo’s and prison staff are helping fathers learn new parenting skills and in particular helping them to both understand the needs of children and promote and develop a positive relationship with their own child.”