Lack of ‘in-person’ prison visits could affect rehabilitation for parent and child

Impact of separation ‘intensified’ for prisoners’ children during Covid, study shows

‘Effectively, there have been no in-person visits from children since March 2020,’ said a spokeswoman for the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

‘Effectively, there have been no in-person visits from children since March 2020,’ said a spokeswoman for the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

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The lack of “in-person” visits between thousands of children and their parents in prison for over a year due to Covid-19 restrictions could damage the process of reunification and rehabilitation after prison, a report published on Thursday warns.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust says despite the beginning of a phased re-introduction of in-person prison visits from this week, many fathers and all mothers in prison will still not be able to see or touch their children.

“Children and families with a family member in prison have been hidden for too long. The time for robust and meaningful action is now,” says the report, Piecing It Together.

“Effectively, there have been no in-person visits from children since March 2020,” said a spokeswoman for the trust. “Though they restarted briefly in some prisons in July and August last year, and again in December, the country went back into lockdown shortly after,” it says. “Visits are due to restart this week in two of our 11 male prisons, with no timeline yet for the women’s prisons.”

Visits started again in Wheatfield prison on Wednesday and will restart in Portlaoise on Friday.

“In 2018, a total of 239,769 visitors entered the Irish prison estate, of which 50,592 were identified as children,” says the report. “This indicates the number of families and children affected by imprisonment annually in Ireland is high and there is a need to ensure policies and practices are compliant with children’s rights.”

The impact of being separated from a parent in prison has been “intensified” for these children during Covid, the trust says.

“The lack of in-person visits has impacted children’s relationships with their parents, notwithstanding the introduction of video calls and phones in cells.

“The status of in-person family visits must, therefore, be continually reviewed and restrictions lifted as soon as possible in line with public health advice. Any restriction on visiting rights must be necessary and proportionate in each individual case. New approaches, such as the development of outdoor visiting areas, should also be developed.”

Restrictions

Even where visits are recommencing, just one adult visitor is permitted with one child only, for a maximum of 15 minutes, with visits behind screens and everyone wearing masks and gloves.

The restriction of one child only per visit means mothers having to choose which child to bring or, in many cases, deciding not to visit at all “because they cannot arrange childcare or because of the guilt of having to choose between their children”, said a spokeswoman.

The report is an “update” on a 2012 report of the same name. Though written against the backdrop of Covid, it stresses it is not a report on Covid and is focused on long-term, sustainable systemic policy change for children and their families.

Many of the 2012 recommendations remain outstanding, it says.

Among the 29 recommendations are that child-friendly visiting spaces be provided in every prison; a national support service for children and families with a family member in prison be established; the Irish Prison Service gather detailed data on how many prisoners have children, how many they have and their ages; and, that the Department of Children commission detailed, longitudinal research on children of prisoners.

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