PRISONERS being released during the Covid-19 crisis are facing “a completely alien world,” according to representatives of a support group in Clare. The nature of the lockdown, combined with the new public health guidelines, mean huge changes to society and additional hurdles for those trying to reintegrate after serving a custodial sentence. Patrick Talty, who is a Project Worker with the Clare branch of Bedford Row, which supports those detained at Limerick Prison and their families, said getting one’s life back on track has become far more difficult than in pre-Covid times.
“Even someone who may have served a short sentence of three or four months will find that the world has changed dramatically,” Mr Talty said. “When it comes to accessing services like housing and medical care, the normal routes have changed. For someone who is homeless after coming out of prison, the experience is extremely frustrating and scary That’s not to criticise, in any way, those who provide services, they’ve done a wonderful job in keeping things going despite Covid-19.”
Recent figures suggest that up to 80 of the Limerick Prison’s inmates have Clare addresses and that a further 250 people from this county are on probation. With the support of the Sisters of Mercy and the Courts Discretionary Fund, set up by Judge Patrick Durcan, the project was extended into this county. A part-time service is available in Ennis and puts its focus on reintegrating former prisoners and supporting their families. Throughout the lockdown, their premises has been closed, but intensive efforts have continued to provide advice and support and to connect those in prison with their loved ones.
The impact of coronavirus restrictions on the mental health of the general population has been repeatedly flagged and Mr Talty believes there are major concerns for former prisoners in this regard. “Psychologically, there is a dramatic impact,” he said. “People are so unbelievably lost. That tends to put the pressure back onto family members.”
Working with relatives and children of those in prison forms a large part of Mr Talty’s work. For these “innocent bystanders”, coping with a loved one’s imprisonment has been made even more difficult by the crisis. “The lockdown has been a horrific experience for families,” he said. “They’re already suffering, despite having committed no crime and the crisis has really added to that. There’s a huge amount of fear over the welfare of their loved ones, and then panic sets in. The prison authorities have been brilliant in working to keep contact up, despite the fact that visits have been banned. They’ve played a blinder too in keeping Covid-19 out of the prison.”
Larry De Cléir, Project Leader with Bedford Row, also noted that the ban on prison visits had put further hardship on families. “The first priority, of course, is to keep the virus out of prisons,” he said. “In the UK, it did get into prisons, with serious consequences. The authorities were very quick to contact us to step up phone contact with families, but the situation is, naturally, very difficult for them. With support, most families and prisoners accepted that.”
The return of prison visiting is eagerly anticipated by families. The most recent update from the Department of Justice notes that arrangements have yet to be finalised: “The Irish Prison Service (IPS) will provide further information, and a date for the gradual recommencement of visits, to prisoners and their families in the coming weeks.”
In the meantime, the public health guidelines have also further curtailed Bedford Row’s face-to-face support service, which, in Clare operates on a part-time basis and faces an ongoing funding struggle. “We haven’t been a position to meet people, so it’s been about talking people through their challenges,” Mr Talty said. “The phone is fine, but it’s really not the same without the human factor, which is so important to support people.”
He added that, with the prospect of further lockdowns on the horizon, there is a need to put better structures in place for families. “We must consider the traumatic impact of this crisis on families, who are already struggling,” he said. “We really have to work now to help them come to terms with the crisis. In collaboration with prison authorities and staff, we would hope to be able to learn from this experience and that better structures and supports might be put in place in the event of future restrictions.”
During the lockdown, Bedford Row Clare has been able to move form the Clon Road to a new premises at the Orchard Lane Business Park in Hermitage, Cloughleigh. In line with the roadmap for re-opening Ireland, the group hopes to be able to offer services on-site in the near future. “We have been meeting to consider that,” Mr De Cléir said. “We’re looking at all of the public health guidelines currently.”
Funding to maintain support remains a huge issue. “The service in Clare is dramatically under-funded,” Mr Talty said. “We are very grateful for Courts in Clare for their support, but we are vulnerable funding-wise.”
Recent research on the work of Bedford Row estimates that for every €1 invested in its service, the State saves €5.56 through a reduction in re-offending and the health and social inclusion benefits for families. “Our work is all about breaking the cycle of re-offending and saving children from a path that can lead to prison,” Mr De Cléir noted. “Prisoners mightn’t necessarily be top of the list when people are thinking of causes to donate to, but there are big benefits for society from any funding we receive. For that reason, we would be hopeful of securing more statutory funding. At the moment, we rely on the Mercy Sisters and the Courts Service to keep us going, and we’re really running on a shoe-string.”
The positive impact of the Bedford Row project is also in evidence through a unique visitor project at Limerick Prison. ‘The Sitting Room’ supports child-friendly prison visits in collaboration with Tusla and Bedford Row and was recently recognised with an Investing in Children Award, from the British-based organisation, Investing in Children. “It was a great achievement,” Mr De Cléir said. “It’s a credit to all involved and the first time a prison project had been chosen.”
Bedford Row in Clare is supported by a number of volunteers with a range of specialists skills in psychology and facilitation, and according to Mr Talty, the lockdown has also brought out people’s strengths. “People are brilliant and there’s nothing like the people of Clare when they put their minds to something.”
Details of Bedford Row’s services in Limerick and Clare are available by phoning 061-315332