6th February 2024
On 6 February 2024, in an Irish TImes article, Executive Director Saoirse Brady comments on the impact imprisonment has on children and families of people in prison, details about prison visits and other issues arising from overcrowding in prison.
Like thousands of people whose loved ones are incarcerated in an Irish prison unit, Grace waits for a six-minute phone call every day, at the same time, since prison became part of her routine.
Her partner has been serving a sentence since 2019 which has left her “doing time on the outside”, she says.
She describes her journey as a family member of a prisoner as “really lonely and even harder because you don’t have any support”.
“We have no voice. Not a thing. I get to see him once a week, that’s it. It’s very hard to have a relationship with someone in prison in Ireland … to keep it kind of going.
“When he first got in, I just couldn’t talk to him. Not knowing what was going on was really difficult. I don’t have anybody. I don’t socialise. I don’t have any friends, no family or anything like that. He is the only person I have. We all do make mistakes, right? But this doesn’t define who we are, even if someone is in prison. And the media makes things worse because they make people in prison look like monsters. There’s no support for them … for us. I always say, ‘not my crime, but still my time’. And that’s the truth,” she says.
Research carried out by the Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT) found that families of people in prison are often described as the “hidden victims of the penal system despite not having perpetrated any crime”.
“I feel that because my brother is in prison, I should be ashamed. So, once your brother is in jail, that’s it. You’re just a criminal too,” says Elaine Finnegan, who had been making prison visits for almost two years until his recent release.
She says her brother, who was jailed for a theft-related offence, had been seriously assaulted while in Wheatfield Prison in 2022 in what she described as a “traumatised” journey through the criminal justice system. Amid tighter security following the attack, she says it became more difficult to secure prison visits.
“We missed out on five video calls and three in-person visits. And then we would get a visit every two weeks,” she says.
In 2023, there were 121,402 physical visits facilitated across the Irish Prison Service (IPS), with 38,007 children visiting a loved one incarcerated.
Prisoners are entitled to receive, by prior appointment, not less than one visit each week, which may take place in person (of not more than 30 minutes), or virtual (of not more than 20 minutes) according to the prison rules. There is no limit on the number of children permitted “but it has to be within reason and children have to be supervised as to not disrupt other visits”, while a maximum of three adult visitors is allowed.
“Where a prisoner requests a physical visit, every effort is made to facilitate same however for security reasons this is not always possible,” says the IPS.
Grace (a pseudonym to protect her identity) is critical of the visiting restrictions and believes one visit per week is insufficient to keep a relationship going with a loved one in prison.
“You can barely hear each other [in the visiting area]. You’re sitting across the table and you can’t even have a conversation. One visit a week with the only person you have. This has to stop. It’s not only them that get locked up, it’s me too.”
Grace never had any issues when visiting her partner, except for one situation at Portlaoise Prison last year when she was searched via a sniffer dog while going through security and was “heartbroken” as the visit then took place behind a screen.
At that time, the visits were under Covid-19 restrictions, allowing one in-person visit every two weeks. A new video visit system was introduced and has received positive feedback from families and prisoners, eliminating the need for long journeys to prison, according to the IPS. Last year more than 41,500 family video visits took place across the prison units.
IPRT executive director Saoirse Brady says the Covid-19 restrictions lasted much longer in prison than in the community.
“That was difficult as well. [The IPS] had the number of people allowed to go in reduced. Sometimes, if you had more than a couple of children, you had to choose which ones to go in. So with the video calls, at least, you could all have a chat. It can be positive in that respect. The drawbacks are that you don’t have the physical contact or the physical connection. The contact that you’re going to have is limited in prison,” she says.
A prisoner serving his sentence at Midlands Prison for more than six years tells The Irish Times that before Covid-19 he used to have physical visits. Virtual visits have since become a good solution for him as his family lives far away from the prison.
“You can see a lot more on a video call if you come down for a visit. You can see more people … Your whole family could be at home. It’s also nice to see the changes. You also get to see people as you know them. For my wife to come here for a visit at 2pm involves leaving Dublin at half-nine in the morning and not getting home till seven at night. So you have to balance the effort put in and the reward. You lose the physical contact, but you still have the contact. I’m coming to the end now, so my conversations are about planning when I go home” he says.
To visit a loved one in the Midlands Prison, a minimum of 48 hours’ notice must be given when booking a visit online or over the phone. When attending a prison for a visit, the family member must provide the booking reference at the reception and a photograph ID to check in to the visit waiting room. Before entering the prison, going through security is a mandatory procedure, even for children.
The visitor should go through an X-ray machine and a metal detector followed by a swab, pat, and dog search to pursue the visit. If successful, the visitor is taken to the visiting area with a central table where the prisoner sits on one side, and the families on the other.
During a visit to view the facility, there was no sign of hugging or touching among prisoners and family members. Under prison rules, the governor may allow physical contact where “satisfied that such contact will not facilitate the entry into the prison of controlled drugs or other prohibited articles or substances”.
Another inmate who has a child with severe autism says prison officers should make more allowances for children with intellectual disabilities, suggesting training was needed in the IPS.
“In my personal case, I was told: ‘You can’t control your children. Your son has severe autism. He can’t speak, he can’t communicate. And if he can’t communicate, he gets frustrated’.”
Other prisoners have had similar experiences but “maybe are not vocal enough like me”, he says. When children with disabilities visit the prison “it’s not that they’ve been treated wrong, it’s that the staff don’t know what to do”.
Last year, 23,135 physical and 10,169 virtual visits were facilitated in the Midlands Prison, 5,432 of the visitors were children. As of January 30th, 2024, there were 4,768 prisoners in custody in the Irish prison units operating at 106 per cent of bed capacity — Midlands had 940 prisoners, which represented at 107 per cent of bed capacity.
“Each one of those people is a person, and each one of them has individual needs, which we try to address as much as possible,” says Michael O’Mahony, who has been working in the IPS for more than 24 years and is one of the governors of Midlands Prison.
“We have a large number of sex offenders in the Midlands Prison. So that’s one set of needs. And then we have another set of ordinary prisoners, the general population. So there’s another set of needs there. What we’re trying to do is treat people as individuals and give them as much scope as we can.”
He says the support of family members to people in custody was hugely beneficial and prison’s focus was on maintaining the relationship while avoiding criminality, as drug smuggling into prison was a problem.
“Face-to-face contact is vitally important. Last year, after Covid-19, we surveyed the population, and we asked all the people there, what’s your preference? It came back that 50 per cent wanted physical visits and 50 per cent preferred video visits. So what we did was we divided the resources that we had to give them 50-50.
“I’d say that if we were to give longer [visits] to everybody, we need more resources, we need more visiting rooms, we need more staff to manage that. Because if we’re going to give, if we’re going to give an hour to somebody under the current system that we have at the moment, somebody is going to lose out,” he adds.
More prisoners in jail means “a significant increase in the use of prison staff to escort people for court appearances and/or hospital appointments”, says the IPS. However, a €6.5 million additional staffing package was secured under Budget 2023 and “this will support both improvements in opening hours and access to prisoner services including education services”.
The IPRT says overcrowding is affecting access to prison visits but there are other serious effects from the rise in prison numbers.
“We’re talking about inhumane and degrading conditions for people. We’re talking about people sleeping on mattresses in cells designed for two people. That is not acceptable in this day and age,” says Brady.
She says the current visit system needs to be improved, noting the online booking system makes it difficult for people who have patchy internet access or who might be in homeless accommodation.
“There was this assumption that everybody has [internet] access, but they don’t. And then if you’re reliant on phone calls, like to ring the prison to book a visit, what we hear is because of the staff shortages, people can’t get through on the phones, or when they get through to the online booking system, the slots are already filled,” says Brady.
“So, that creates difficulties in people not actually being able to access visits in the first place, even though they may be entitled to them. At the moment there are no conjugal visits. So, if you’re in a relationship, you don’t have that level of intimacy at all. That’s really unfortunate. We should be thinking about what we can better do to support families to spend time together, see each other, and maintain those important relationships,” she adds.
In 2022, the average cost of a staffed prison space was €84,046, a 4.6 per cent increase from the year before. The figures also include utilities, maintenance, ICT, and services provided to prisoners, including education, healthcare and work training.
Yet many families of inmates say they have to financially support their loved ones in prison, adding to extra costs of visits, meals and transport. Finnegan says she topped up her brother’s IPS card with about €150-€200 every two weeks and supplied him with clothes.
“I kept his IPS card topped up to allow him to have a few essentials while in there. I supplied his clothing to make sure he would be kept warm,” she says.
Grace also sends money to her partner in prison “so he can buy stuff in the shop” almost every week.
“Last week, I sent €22. This week, I’m only able to send €15 because I don’t have more than that. I’m struggling so much here. And there’s nothing he can do to help me,” she says. “I’m hoping that he can get to an open prison soon. I have to be honest, it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever gone through in my life. Once he gets out, I’ll be fine. There will be no more worries. That’s the truth.”