It is generally understood that prisoners’ families, particularly the children, are as likely to be affected by imprisonment as prisoners are. It is also accepted that it is difficult to maintain family ties and at times it can feel as though the whole family are serving the sentence also.
When I first started working for the ICPO (Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas) back in early 2007, I quickly became aware of how important it was for clients to keep contact with their families. A high number of ICPO clients do not receive family visits as visiting a prison in England and Wales from overseas can be extremely difficult.
Most are remote and very hard to reach, and it can be a daunting experience to say the least especially with children in tow. ICPO would sometimes send a small grant for phone credit; a telephone call to family being the next best thing to a visit.
I was soon introduced to Sarah, a young lady of 15 whose father was serving a lengthy sentence of 20 years. Sarah was being cared for by the local authority as she had no other family. Her dad Bill, as you can imagine, was very concerned for Sarah, but as she was only 15 she was unable to visit her dad without an adult. Bill could handle anything prison life could throw at him but not being able to see Sarah was very distressing for him. Although they had regular contact by phone, Bill needed to see his daughter and this was the same for Sarah; all she wanted was to see her dad.
After a discussion with Fr Gerry and Breda, it was agreed that myself and Breda would escort Sarah on a social visit. I remember how excited and grateful Bill was, he couldn’t wait to get back to his cell and get the visiting order posted. This was the start of many visits to see Bill with his daughter and one of the best parts of my job. I know that being able to see Sarah, Bill was able to progress through his sentence and is now in an open prison and looking forward to his release. I have not needed to escort Sarah for a visit for some years now as she has her own family and still visits her dad regularly with the 3 grandchildren. Due to ICPO Bill was able to keep up contact and have a relationship with his daughter, and both are now looking forward to the future knowing they have each other for support.
(NB Names have been changed)
Liz Power (ICPO – National Caseworker)
As part of Traveller History Month in June, the Irish Chaplaincy
organized an event at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London for
Irish Travellers. After a competition (with cash prizes on offer for
the lucky winners) I sang a few old Irish songs and was spontaneously
and ably joined on guitar by one of the men who informed
me that he’d worked as a session musician. There was a great
atmosphere with lots of friendly banter, and this continued during
the shared meal that followed. I was touched when one of the
guys said to me “it’s things like this that help to keep my spirits up”.
We promised to be back for another event near to Christmas, to
which one character shouted out “well I won’t be here, please
God, because I’m due for release in November”!
Somebody asked me during the meal, “How do you sing Irish
songs like that when you’ve got an English accent?” I explained
that it’s what I’d grown up with. My parents were two of the many
thousands of Irish people who came to England in the post-war
years in search of work, and it was to minister to the needs of this
wave of emigrants that the Irish Chaplaincy was founded in 1957.
Inspired by the words of Jesus “I was a stranger and you took me
into your home; I was sick, and you cared for me; I was in prison,
and you visited me”, we will continue to walk alongside the people
we meet at Wormwood Scrubs and elsewhere and with other Irish
people most on the margins.
And true to our word we will be back at the Scrubs for another
event at the end of November. There will be more music, this time
from Hackney Folk who did a great set of traditional Irish music at
our July concert; there will be a performance from Irish Theatre of
the specially-commissioned 2-person play, ‘Irish Chaplaincy- 60
Years on’; and we will once again finish with a meal. As Jesus
showed time and again in the gospel stories, to share food with
somebody is to share in an intimate and profound way something
of our shared humanity. I’m sure this will be another uplifting event
This year the Irish Chaplaincy celebrates its 60th birthday. Set up by the Irish bishops as the Irish Emigrant Chaplaincy in a very different social, political and cultural climate, it continues today to provide an outreach service to some of the most vulnerable Irish people in Britain.
Breda Power – London Prisons Case Manager
My journey to become a prison visitor for the Irish Chaplaincy has been a long and arduous one and at time daunting. I remember the first time I acquired a set of keys to enable me to manoeuvre around the prison without an escort. I was told by the managing chaplain “go on then, get lost in the prison”. I cannot remember a time when I felt more vulnerable at work. Continue Reading