Bedford Row Family Project is a charitable organisation based in Limerick which is part-funded by the Irish Prison Service. They have been members of Children of Prisoners Europe for many years now and continue to provide excellent support services to both prisoners and families of prisoners within Limerick prison and in the community.

The staff at Bedford Row has recently carried out a piece of local research for the Families and Imprisonment Group (FIG) of the Irish Prison Service who have plans, over the coming years, to substantially improve the visiting conditions for children and families visiting their loved ones in prison. The work involved interviews with a family and their children who had been supported by Bedford Row over a period of almost 4 years.

Bedford Row undertook informal consultation with these children to provide the FIG with the views of children directly affected by the imprisonment of a family member. The key issues arising are summarised below. The organisation also has plans to undertake similar research with children from families where there is little or no support evident.

According to the children, every stage of their father’s arrest, sentencing and imprisonment was “terrifying”.

At the time of arrest, the main feelings experienced by the children were fear and worry as to whether their father would ever be coming back. It was reported that no one told the children about what was going on; one child even resorted to listening at doors so he could find out for himself.

The period of the trial and sentencing was marked by sadness for the children. They described themselves as feeling “lost inside” and feeling as though their family was breaking up.

Visits/Imprisonment
The children were very scared visiting the prison. They were afraid of the drug dogs. One child was so afraid that he said he could not breathe.
In many respects the children did not feel they could say anything to their mother as they wished to protect her. They were aware that she too was very sad and upset, so the children kept things to themselves and were “in constant pain”.
The children’s experiences of the open centre were a lot more positive; there were kisses and hugs and opportunities to play with their father.

Release/Coming home
The joy that the children felt at their father’s return was tainted slightly by worry and anxiety. At the beginning, the children were very conscious not to upset their father in case he would do something bad and end up back in prison. It was noted that this improved with time.

Experience of play therapy
The young boy (7, at the time) reported that when his Mum brought him to Bedford Row he thought that he was going to be taken away just like his Dad. An important aspect of the early work of play therapy was therefore concerned with reassurance. In time, however, the children were able to use their access to therapy very constructively. They reported getting things off their chest, being honest and working out their feelings. The support proved beneficial and allowed the children not just to deal with the reality of their father’s imprisonment, but to cope with their own lives, including school life.

A set of recommendations was gathered from the children, which is a fantastic example of child participation and involvement in the decisions that concern them.

Recommendations from the children:
· Both children felt greater efforts could be made to make the prison experience more child-friendly and less daunting, e.g. separate area for searching children and for their visits.
· Children should be told everything, at every stage of the process.
· One young person gave the prison a big “thumbs down”. She said they don’t understand anything about children and that a child visiting is “scared and traumatised” by the experience.

Plans are already underway for Bedford Row Family Project to have meaningful involvement in the new initiatives by the Irish Prison Service in Limerick prison mentioned above.  Bedford Row is also committed to ongoing action research to alleviate the distress caused to children of imprisoned parents at all stages of the imprisonment process, i.e. arrest, pre-trial/remand, trial, sentence, incarceration, release, and post release.

For more information, please contact Larry de Cleir: larry@bedfordrow.ie

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Author: COPE News