The family support group was started in Cork in March 2008 in response to the needs of relatives who sought help and information from various services within the prison. There was no formal method of helping the families of prisoners, particularly those who where serving their first sentence. At committal interviews within the prisoners, a young prisoner would regularly ask for a message to be sent to his family to assure them not to worry about him. Many parents or partners contacted the prison to enquire about a loved one who had just been sentenced.

“safe, confidential, non-judgmental environment”

For people who come into contact with the legal system or the prison for the first time, there can be great confusion with regard to what is happening. This confusion can lead to fear and anxiety for the family.

We began with seven people whose relatives had been sent to prison for the first time. Our group  had been extremely traumatised and had sought help and guidance from the probation service. None of us ever had any experience of the courts or the justice system.

We did not have a particular agenda, the idea was to introduce the concept of simple support and listen to their concerns. Through open discussion we aimed to find an acceptable format. There emerged a strong interest in the idea of forming a support  group and a consensus was reached that we would meet  every two weeks and encourage others to come along.

We found it difficult at the beginning to set an agenda or create a format for moving forward. We had so many issues that we simply wanted to talk and share our many difficult but common experiences. Many of these issues were in relation to visiting the prison. We discussed the difficulties and confusion we faced while coming through the security system. Visitation policies and procedures vary widely from prison to prison.

In the group we felt that we were in safe place to share these experiences; we could not have this discussion with friends or neighbors because nobody else could understand what we were going through.

The Broader Picture

After this initial setting up period, we  looked at the idea of  bringing in experts in the  particular areas of concern that had arisen, to speak on issues and answer questions. Speakers included: a child psychologist, a law lecturer, a long service probation officers, citizen’s advice, addiction services, a financial consultant and a long-serving teacher from the prison service. These sessions were organised in a lecture format at the beginning followed by questions and answer sessions. They proved to be extremely useful in providing solutions to particular queries.
Even where prisoners from Cork Prison were transferred to other prisons around the country, their relatives continue to attend the meetings.

Benefits of the Group

  • The group offers support and provides information to new members. Members do not have to be associated with the prison for the first time, though these need the  most support.
  • A member of the group will accompany a visitor on a first visit should they require it.
  • We have gained the confidence to challenge discriminatory practices for ourselves and our family members in prison.
  • Individual members have gained the respect of the governor and prison officers through their approach to issues.
  • We have achieved an acceptance of our current situation.
  • Assistance with financial advice and practical issues has helped to avoid further trauma.
  • Telling the children is a major concern; difficulties in this area have been thoroughly discussed and solutions sought.
  • The objective in the group is to empower members rather than advise them.

Group members have helped and supported each other in countless important ways.  There is no doubt that without such support both the prisoners and their families would have had severe difficulties in adjusting to the prison sentence and in maintaining relationship and lifestyles.

We welcome anyone from any walk of life who needs support, or who is feeling helpless because they may have  never previously experienced this before. Some of the families we have worked with express complete bewilderment and fear when faced with the justice system.

Today more and more people are entering the prison system from such families and they need a service such as this to cope with their initial fears and confusion.

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