Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Appendix 3: Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, provision for children and families of prisoners is extremely well established across the province. It is underpinned by solid working relationships and an acknowledgement of the importance of the family in reducing the risk of re-offending and facilitating resettlement.


The prison service resettlement strategy includes families, and this work is supported by a resettlement partnership which includes the prison service, probation, NIACRO, Barnardo’s, the Prison Fellowship and the Quaker Service. It was felt that a lot of good practice takes place but it is largely down to the foresight and personalities of the staff working in the prisons who allow it to happen. Each prison has a resettlement team so there is already a mindset and willingness for this to succeed.

At the time of the group discussion, a family strategy was being developed with a view to embedding into practice. It was asking questions about the needs of families, what provision already exists and what gaps remain, with the intention to publicly consult on the content of this strategy early in 2008. The new child protection policy and procedures will provide for the recording of statistics on the number of children visiting prisons.

NIACRO are starting to record statistics on children and families of prisoners. They have not carried out any research to determine the level of service required, mainly due to the small numbers of prisoners (three main prisons and one young offenders’ institution, which also houses the female prison population).

The success of the work in Northern Ireland is as a result of the very effective partnership between the prisons and the voluntary sector, namely NIACRO, Barnardo’s, Quaker Service and others. A very high level of support is offered to the families of prisoners and a multi-agency Family Links strategy group, consisting of senior managers from all the agencies identified above, meets to formalise processes and discuss issues.

Effective aspects of provision, in addition to good working relations includes support for families travelling to and from prisons, well-equipped visitor centres, support for social workers and carers taking children into the prisons and friendly prison staff. Children of prisoners are recognised as a distinct group of children in need in Children’s Plans in Northern Ireland. This enables families to access better support and holistic interventions.

The inter-agency strategy group aims to develop links between partners and offer a universal service to all families. The process of maintaining family ties is enhanced by the prison and the systems in place to make visiting more accessible and user-friendly.


Funding for family services is mainly from the prisons. The prison service funds the work in the visitor centres which is tendered on a three yearly basis and a service level agreement operated. The prison service also pays for transport and assists with the costs of families making visits to relatives in prison. The Quaker Service also receives money from the Northern Ireland Office and other donations.

NIACRO funding is from a range of sources. The Family Links work is funded by the Probation Board and the Youth Justice Agency amongst others – the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) supported this work by seconding a Principal Officer to the Family Links team. The NIACRO advice service is in partnership with the Probation Service, and provides a specialist advice service geared to the particular needs of people in contact with the criminal justice system. Barnardo’s apply to the prisons annually for funding their initiatives.

Policies and procedures

The prison service in Northern Ireland has more of a resettlement focus and is able to look outside for support for prisoners and their families. When a prisoner enters a prison, they are interviewed by probation, and if permission is given by the prisoner, probation can pass details of family onto the Family Links staff. They will fax this information to NIACRO in the community who can liaise with the family of the prisoner to arrange visits and provide advice. This is initially done by telephone with a follow-up information pack sent to the prisoner’s family before they first visit a prison to ensure they have the information they need. While the prisoner is the key to whether information is passed along the chain, it is the family who choose whether or not NIACRO visit to offer face-to-face support.

Data is collected on numbers of children. This is being reviewed at present but age, gender and ethnicity of child is currently recorded. Assessments are completed to identify risk factor and efforts are being made to link in with the common assessment framework to assess re-offending and resettlement issues. There are great differences in provision across the three prisons, and sign-up to the family strategy for all staff is seen as critical to on-going development.


Partnerships exist between prisons, NIACRO, Barnado’s and the quakers as part of the resettlement strategy and these are crucial to the on-going success of this work. The multi-agency resettlement strategy meeting (comprising largely criminal justice organisations) makes decisions on protocols and procedures, discusses practice issues at a strategic level and agrees on aims, objectives, timescales, milestones and resource-sharing ideas.


The prison staff have training on working with families and how to support family visits. Kids VIP has provided a lot of materials, which has been particularly useful for the training of family officers. Barnado’s provide joint training which is accredited and co-facilitated by Barnado’s and the prison officers. This helps Barnado’s staff gain access to the system, as well as broadening the view of prison officers.

Several training and parenting programmes are undertaken with both the female and male prison estates to help prepare them for release and reuniting with their families.


As already indicated above, there is a system in place of offering support to all families of prisoners within 48 hours of imprisonment. The system involves the probation service and Family Link services within the prisons and NIACRO out in the community. NIACRO’s advice service is the only service offering advice and support right across Northern Ireland to prisoners’ families, and released prisoners and offenders in the community. It provides information, advice and representation on subjects like benefits, housing and debt. In addition to the packs of information that are sent out, NIACRO will undertake home visits to offer emotional support. Families are also able to ring in for advice.

The family support officers in the prisons also play a key part in the process supporting and advising families and providing a link between prisoners and their families. They offer one-to-one contact with families on a wide range of issues and will refer families to other support services as required. They will also help advise on visiting processes and are available on the telephone at other times. Family support officers are also involved in safer custody forums, where socially isolated families are identified and attempts made to seek positive engagement and family support. At HMP Maghaberry partner support groups are facilitated by family support officers.

At one of the prison sites the work of the family support officer Team is being supported by a new volunteer programme developed by Quaker Service. Volunteers man the Family Support Officer and help support families. Another initiative is a new isolated prison visitor scheme which has been developed by Quaker Service. One of the new initiatives at HMP Hydebank Wood, which accommodates female prisoners, is work to develop new accommodation for mothers and their children. Barnardo’s have developed a range of materials for helping families cope with a parent in prison, and this includes help with how to tell younger children what has happened.

There is no provision at the point of arrest or court stage of proceedings. Support on release is limited, although there are a lot of programmes run in the prisons and this goes some way towards preparing the families for release.

Links with prisons

Prisons in Northern Ireland have well-equipped visitor centres and family visit areas, fun days and annual activity days for the families. The delivery of these activities can be affected by operational pressures. Procedures are in place for children visiting parents in prison, and a visitor inmate recognition and booking system enables far more flexibility in visiting times, including booking a visit up to a month in advance.

Further safeguards in relation to children visiting prisons will be introduced in 2008 with the implementation of the new Northern Ireland Prison Service child protection policy and procedures. The solid partnership between the prisons and community organisations is essential in supporting this work across Northern Ireland.


Systems are in place to record outcomes, for example, a visitor survey evaluates general satisfaction levels in relation to families visiting prisons. The families also get the opportunity to comment via family support officers, the Quaker Service, Barnardo’s and NIACRO family visit staff.

Challenges and obstacles

In spite of the obvious success of the systems across Northern Ireland, there remain areas for improvement and development. The following list identifies some of the challenges and obstacles to be overcome:

Lessons for practice