reaching out | 

Irish prisoners can 'teach their children of the dangers of everyday living'

"Prisoners are uniquely placed to communicate this message"
Neil Fetherstonhaugh

Prisoners serving jail sentences can “teach their children of the dangers of everyday living”, a member of Mountjoy’s prison staff has said.

The Governor of the Mountjoy Progression Unit, Donncha Walsh, was speaking as it was revealed how a new pilot programme unveiled at the Dublin prison has resulted in a reduction in re-offending rates.

The 'Reach Out' programme, which recommends improved family visits, longer phone calls and family days has also seen progress in breaking the cycle of intergenerational crime.

The programme was developed on behalf of FusionCPL - an addiction service which supports prisoners.

Research suggests it helped improve the quality of communication and interaction between prisoners, their partners and children.

Kathy Watts, FusionCPL's manager, says families are often the main source of hope for people during their sentence.

"The experience of prison can fragment a family," she said.

"Studies have found that if prisoners lose contact with their children in the first three years of their sentence, re-engagement strategies with their children often-times prove unproductive.

"Likewise, research has shown that the absence of a strong family relationship upon release deprives the prisoner of a loving anchor which can effectively prevent re-offending."

She says there can also be positives for the children, too.

"Early and sustained contact between the prisoner and their children in the initial phase of a jail sentence is therefore vital.

"The opportunities for prisoners and their children to retain positive contact is life-enhancing for the prisoner and, with proper engagement, can enable those in prison to positively shape the behaviour of their children - disrupting the cycle of intergenerational criminality and incarceration."

The Governor of the Mountjoy Progression Unit, Donncha Walsh, has given his support for mainstreaming the programme.

"We must use the experience of those people who are incarcerated to teach their children of the dangers of everyday living," he said.

"Prisoners are uniquely placed to communicate this message and the evaluation of the Reach Out programme has captured the positive changes a prisoner can have on the lives of their children.

"The Reach Out programme has also captured the willingness of Mountjoy and the wider prison service to innovate and we must continue this process", he adds.

However Dr Seán McDonnell, who conducted the evaluation, says it identified some challenges with the visitation process.

"Visitation is a vulnerable time for families and the environment in which they take place is not suitable in terms of confidentiality, intimacy or comfort.

"Indeed the environment can be an active barrier to sensitive family communication.

"Those who took part in the Reach Out programme would like to see the range of family communication activities extended to include longer phone calls - including online calls - regular family days and hour-long visits for children with room for activities like playing sports.

"Such improvements in visitation would improve the part prisoners played in the family's life", Dr McDonnell says.


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