Children who have parent in prison ‘unseen and unheard’

Conference told it is unknown how many Irish children have a parent in prison

Children with a parent in prison are particularly vulnerable, and yet very little is known about them in the State, a conference in Dublin heard on Wednesday.

There is very limited access for children who have parents in prison – with “screened” visits and six-minute a day phone calls – and many feel stigmatised by having a jailed parent, the conference heard.

*The event was led by Dr Fiona Donson and Dr Aisling Parkes from UCC School of Law, co-hosted by the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Children's Rights Alliance (CRA) and funded by the Irish Research Council.

Saoirse Brady, legal policy officer with the CRA, said it was not even known how many children there were with a parent in prison. "They really are unseen and unheard in this country. We need to gather data."


Tim Haines, a family support manager with Families Outside, a charity supporting families of prisoners in the United Kingdom, told the conference of an incident from his past career as a teacher.

He said a boy aged about eight, who had been well-behaved, began behaving badly and became disruptive. When he asked the school principal about the boy, he was told his brother, to whom the boy was close, was in prison.

First thought

Mr Haines said his first thought was to wonder what the brother had done, to think about the brother and not the child. He decided not to bring it up with the boy “in case I made the situation worse in some way”, and just to “monitor” him.

“Looking back I got it wrong. I got it right for me in a selfish way, but my first thought should have been ‘how is the boy doing?’ This was his story, not his brother’s.

“He’s eight years old and his brother is in prison. But no one asks him how he is doing even though he misses him every day, and he just can’t cope with the secret anymore and the changes in his life. Things really aren’t fine.”

Families Outside engages with schools and teachers on how to support children with family members in prison, including taking teachers to prisons to experience what it is like to be searched, screened and monitored, as children are during visits. This, he said, helps people “to see it from their point of view”.


Fergal Black, director of care and rehabilitation with the Irish Prison Service, said moves were under way to make prison visits in Ireland more child-friendly.

He said screened visits – where prisoner and visitors are separated by a glass screen – were necessary in some cases to prevent drugs being smuggled in. However, in all but Mountjoy and Castlerea prisons open areas were available for family visits.

*Article amended on September 7th at 4.42.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times