Prisoners and their families - both serving time

Video: The family visit to Maghaberry Prison /

The Detail revealed last week that there were 25,000 child visits to Northern Ireland’s prisons during 2013. Today, Kathryn Torney reports from Maghaberry Prison on a scheme which aims to improve prisoners’ relationships with their families and also reduce re-offending in the future. Once a month, prisoners living on Maghaberry’s Families Matter landing are allowed a four hour family visit. With the first media access to the scheme, The Detail joined them and their families last weekend.

BEFORE the visitors arrive, some men sit in armchairs grouped at the back of the room, others are perched on seats beside tables.

Waiting.

Toys are at their feet ready to be played with, alongside brown paper bags folded over at the top containing crisps and sweets bought at the prison tuck shop during the week.

These men are used to waiting. Counting down the hours before visits or marking off the months until their release.

There is plenty of time to think about the wrong decisions, the crimes which resulted in their prison sentence and the impact of this on their families.

It’s quiet considering the number of adults in the room – prison wardens, church volunteers, Barnardo’s workers, the 16 prisoners and us.

A quiet buzz of conversation is audible below the surface but, really, we’re all just waiting.

The door opens, the families enter and the atmosphere changes.

A young boy breaks away from the crowd to run across the open space of the visiting room.

“Daddy!” he shouts, and leaps up into his father’s arms.

Others follow behind. The children are accompanied mainly by their mothers but some by grandparents or other family members.

Some are babies or toddlers oblivious to the institutional surroundings, others are older and must understand they are visiting their dad in prison.

Hugs, excited chatter and activity. Jigsaws are built, crisp bags opened. More hugs.

Some will have their dads home again in months, for others it will be years.

Outside the prison walls, it’s important to acknowledge that the victims of the men’s crimes may be serving their own sentence.

But this day at Maghaberry is for the children of the prisoners. The often forgotten victims of crime.

As part of Barnardo’s Families Matter scheme, today they have four precious hours to spend as a family. To eat together, talk together and play together.

Video: Over 25,000 child visits were recorded by the Northern Ireland Prison Service last year /

It is very different from the traditional weekly, one hour prison visit when the prisoner must stay in his seat at all times.

Today the fathers can get down on the floor to play with their children, help them with homework in a quiet side room, rush forward to pick up their fallen toddler and even serve their family lunch.

A little girl, aged just one, walks across the visitors’ room floor pushing a pink pram. She stops to sit down on the floor to feed her baby doll a bottle.

A six-year-old boy is hoping to go swimming with his dad when he has his first temporary release home for two days next week.

Long after their entrance, another dad is still clutching his young son to his chest. His little head buried in his neck.

An older boy plays at the pool table with his dad. It’s his birthday tomorrow. They will spend it apart.

We speak to Michelle Kearney and Keith Laffin. Their daughter Ella was just three weeks old when her father was imprisoned for his involvement in a drug smuggling operation.

Ella is now almost 10 months old.

Her father is due to be released in May 2015. Michelle is so looking forward to them living as a family again.

Until then, these visits are vital to build up a bond between the father and his young daughter.

Last week, we reported that there were 25,000 child visits by 5,000 individual children to Northern Ireland’s three prison sites. Some children visited just once, while others entered jails multiple times. To see this data, click here.

The Families Matter scheme at Maghaberry has the children at its core.

The aim is to encourage the dads to think about their role as a parent and ultimately to reduce their chances of returning to prison in the future.

Children with a parent in prison experience a range of poor outcomes in relation to well-being, education and relationships and they are also more vulnerable to spending time in prison themselves as adults.

The Barnardo’s project has the joint aim of breaking the cycle of re-offending and reducing the chances of the next generation turning to crime.

The four hour monthly visits remind the dads what they are missing at home and also show them what they are working towards in their parenting classes in the prison during the week.

The dads we spoke to say the course has changed them and changed their attitude to parenting.

This family friendly visit every month allows them to experience a snapshot of the new family life they are helping to shape. The men hope to sustain this when they return home to become full time dads.

In the meantime, they, their partners and their children will all have to just wait.

  • Breaking new ground with parenting project in jail: read more here.