The Children of Prisoners Europe’s (COPE) International Conference 2023 “Reconnecting through Learning and Play” co-hosted by Bedford Row Family Project, COPE, Mary Immaculate College and Limerick Prison took place in Limerick on 8 June 2023. 

The conference highlighted novel and creative approaches to protecting and promoting the rights and welfare of children with a parent in prison. We heard from senior Irish officials including Nuala Ward, Deputy Children’s Ombudsperson; Amanda Sutton, Governor of Wheatfield Prison; and Caron Mc Caffrey, Director General of the Irish Prison Service (IPS). 

An overview of some of the key points from the event.

Day 1: Conference

  • Nuala Ward highlighted that the state should do more for the children of prisoners. 
  • Amanda Sutton spoke about the IPS work with the AsIAm, an Autism charity in Ireland, in the development of the sensory garden in Wheatfield Prison.  
  • Through a video that was played, members of the conference had an opportunity to hear from a number of prisoners in Loughlan House about the challenges of having a visit with children with additional needs and they provided ideas that could support these visits. One man spoke about not being able to see his child in the main prison as the child was unable to cope with the visits which created problems with the bonding between him and his child. He felt that ‘meaningful contact’ was very important. 
  • Caron Mc Caffrey spoke about good practice in the IPS in comparison to other countries. She spoke of the importance of relationships between prisoners and their families. The IPS has placed in-cell phones in all but 3 prisons in Ireland. This ensures that people in prison can make and receive calls until 12am with the length of phone-call having been increased from 6 minutes to 36 minutes per day. Caron also spoke about the plans to increase visits times to include weekend and evening visits.  
  • The conference heard from COPE partners in Europe, who are all working to support children with imprisoned parents through learning and play. The speakers included: Solrosen and Tester Gyllene Draken in Sweden who displayed their theatre performance titled ‘What no one must know about Daddy’. Sarah Beresford spoke about assessing the impact on children and a practical tool for teachers.  
  • A panel discussion followed titled ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ included speakers from IPRT, Tusla, Probacja Foundation, Lithuania Prison Service, Bedford Row and Daragh Bradshaw from University of Limerick. Afterwards, the conference heard a presentation by Dr Ruth Bourke who shared the findings arising from the research undertaken with Dr. Ann Higgins focusing on children and families – whom are at the heart of the work in Bedford Row.  

Day 2: COPE General Assembly 

The COPE general assembly was opened by Rachel Brett, COPE President, providing us with her report. The assembly heard reports on activities from COPE’s Director, Liz Ayre, and the financial report from COPE’s treasurer, Winie Hanekamp.  

Elections then took place including the election of the new president of COPE for the term of three years, Margaret Tuite. At this meeting IPRT was voted onto the COPE Network as a full member alongside three individual members and three organisations – Romodrom from the Czech Republic, Prison Fellowship from the Czech Republic and M Croatia. Read more about that here. Wise Group then presented on the COPE Principles, of which all members of the COPE Network will sign. 

The meeting ended with the approval to hold the next General Assembly Meeting in Germany next June. The afternoon concluded with a visit to the new Limerick female prison. 

Day 3: The Networking Corner 

Saturday morning began with a Network Corner with various members showcasing, exploring and discussing their initiatives. During this session we heard from Families Outside, FFP, Relais Enfants-Parents Belgique, Alternative Sociale and Partners and Raodrigo Jesús Carcedo González.  

A judge as part of the Alternative Sociale and Partners, presented a piece on the value of having a ‘Compassionate Justice’ judicial system. 

Saturday afternoon featured COPE’s Forum for Reflection & Exchange. This session explored cross agency initiative bridging schools and prisons with a focus on the presentations from the first day of the conference.