On 4 July 2023, in response to a parliamentary question by Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan on the ability of prisoners in Castlerea Prison to receive visits from family members, the Minister for Justice and Equality explained that visits to imprisoned people in the Grove Area of Castlerea take place on a Saturday only, however, on Saturday 24 June 2023 all family visits were cancelled due to staff shortages. It was identified that there were 12 visits planned, and all visitors and imprisoned people expecting visits were contacted by the prison on the previous evening. 

In relation to the ongoing work of IPRT’s Children and Families Initiative, IPRT is concerned about the cancelling of Saturday visits in Castlerea and the impact this has in relation to visits from children and family members. The ability to receive visitors in prison and to visit people in prison is a right under Article 35 of the Prison Rules (Amendment) 2007.  

Imprisonment of either parent is challenging for children, affecting many aspects of their lives. It is estimated that there are 5,000 children with a parent in prison in Ireland on any given day, with over 10,000 children affected each year.  

As recorded in IPRT’s recently published Progress in the Penal System (PIPS) 2022, the number of physical visits recorded with at least one child (aged under 18) present was 14,238, with a total of 17,646 children attending in-person visits. Family members of these children are accommodated within Ireland’s 12 prisons, with all providing visits at specific times on a Saturday. Sunday visits are only occurring in the Dóchas Centre for sentenced prisoners only and in Mountjoy’s Training Unit and Ireland’s two open prisons – Loughan House and Shelton Abbey. 

IPRT is concerned about the availability and accessibility of visits to prisons for families and children. Already under the current available times for prison visits, there are various obstacles for families and children to meet with their loved ones within the prison, and any further reduction of this due to staffing issues or otherwise is a concern. Only one prison in Ireland (Cork Prison) provides evening visits, with the remaining 11 prisons mostly only facilitating visits between the hours of 3pm-4.30pm (depending on the prison). This can make it very difficult for families to bring school going children to visit their family member in prison without causing problems with children’s education attainment. In addition to this, it can create further implications on family members in relation to school pickups and childcare arrangement to enable partners to attend visits.

The ability to visit a person in prison on a Saturday is particularly important for family visits with children. For many, it is a day when families have more availability around school and work. Every member of a family maintains a right to family life, and children have the right to maintain regular and direct contact with their parent(s). Videoing calls and in-cell calls have been introduced to facilitate family relations. While greatly welcomed and allowing for increased access for some, IPRT stress that this is not available nor suitable for everyone and should not take away from the importance of physical visits.  

Family contact for both the prisoners and their families on the outside of prison are extremely important. Parent-child visits are essential for healthy child development and can help maintain parent-child attachment, reduce a child’s sense of abandonment, provide a sense of belonging and decrease depression, anxiety and problem behaviours in children. Stable family relationships and community ties have also been recognised as important factors in helping with the resettlement and reintegration of people in prison into communities post-release, contributing to the reduction of recidivism rates.