Address by Bishop Christopher Jones at Conference to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas

09 Nov 2010

9 November 2010 

‘The Pastoral Care of Prisoners Overseas and their Families’

Address by Bishop Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin and Chair of the Commission for Pastoral Care of the Irish Bishops’ Conference at

Bridging the Distance – Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and their families
Conference to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas

I have the privilege of chairing the Commission for Pastoral Care of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. It is the Commission where agencies of the Conference such as ACCORD, Cura, the Bishops’ Drugs Initiative, the Councils for Immigrants and Emigrants including the ICPO, report on their work.

At every single meeting I am encouraged and indeed delighted to hear the reports and the details of the work being done by each of these agencies. I see these particular agencies at the forefront of the good news of the Irish Bishops’ Conference – good news that is so often unheard by the public. One of the reports that never ceases to amaze me is the report from the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas – or ICPO.

I was delighted to hear about this Conference celebrating twenty five years of the ICPO and indeed felt privileged when asked to give this Address – ‘The Pastoral Care of Prisoners Overseas and their Families’.    

This pastoral care started in 1985, prompted by the concern that the Irish Bishops’ Conference had about the number of Irish men and women incarcerated in prisons in the United Kingdom and in particular, the nature of their trials and subsequent imprisonment.

The ICPO has moved with the times over the last quarter of a century but at its very core it has maintained a voice for the voiceless.

Victims Always the Priority
Before discussing care of prisoners overseas it must be stated that for the Church and its caring agencies, the victims of delinquency and crime are a priority. Those of us involved in the care of prisoners are committed to creating a safer society for all. We are aware that the system we have at present often contributes to an increase in crime rather than serving to reduce crime. Common sense tells us that there has to be a better way. Though there are an enormous variety of crimes, society keeps presenting us with only one remedy, a remedy that has its origins in Victorian society. Surely in this age we can bring our advances in our understanding of the human person, our advances in science and technology and many volumes of fine research, to help us discern how we can create a penal system that is a little more creative than the one that presently exists. I feel sorry for those that are imprisoned and for those who work within this system and are asked to work miracles. There has to be a better way to acknowledge and punish crime, to grant justice to victims and to create safer societies. There are many aspects of justice and crime that I could turn my attention to; today however, my task is to address the topic of the pastoral care of prisoners overseas and their families.

In preparation for this paper for today’s conference, a number of questions came to mind, namely:

  • What do we really mean by pastoral care in this context?
  • Why should the Church be involved in the pastoral care of prisoners at all? And,
  • Why the need for the pastoral care of prisoners overseas?

Pastoral Care
So what exactly is pastoral care? We all know that there are pastoral care teams in schools and hospitals. It is quite difficult to define pastoral care because its terms of reference are so wide ranging. The science of pastoral care places great emphasis on the quality of the relationship that exists between the pastoral care worker and those being cared for. That is foundational. The success of the efforts of the pastoral care worker will depend to a great extent on the relationship that exists with the person in need. A relationship of trust is vital.

Pastoral care is mediated through the activities carried out by the pastoral care worker. What are those activities? Research among pastoral care workers in secondary schools found that these workers were involved in a great many different activities, for example; counselling, supporting other staff, supporting students through bereavement, intervening in discipline problems, supporting students through illness, meeting and visiting families and hospital visitation.  (Norman J. (2004) The Heart of Education, Veritas).

Pastoral Care within the Context of Faith and the Church
The ultimate foundation and motivation for those who engage in pastoral care within the context of the Church has to be a deep and enriching knowledge of the love of God. A deep and enriching knowledge of the Father’s love for the world will lead all of us inevitably to be persons for others.

I studied Social Science in U.C.D. back in the 1970’s and I learned much about human behaviour and how we are all influenced by the culture we share.  At times social science seemed to me an empirical science with limited space for anything that cannot not be seen, measured or that does not occupy a space. It gave little consideration to the spiritual dimension of the human person. I remember after graduating going on a course in spirituality just to put God back in my understanding of the human person.     

Society seems satisfied once criminals of any kind, of any age or of any gender are locked away. At times it seems that once they are out of sight and out of mind everyone is content. This approach saddens me as I do not believe it is addressing the problems of our society. After my studies I went back to help found the Sligo Social Services Council and worked for fifteen years there, from 1972 to 1987. Every day we worked with broken families, violence in the home and delinquency. They were to a great extent the side effects of the Industrial Revolution of the 1960’s. In this context I got to know many young people and especially young men who were involved in delinquency and crime of all kinds.  I would know most of their families and could trace their crimes clearly back to broken homes, alcoholic parents, drop outs from second level education and of course unemployment and poverty. I became very conscious that the majority of these young people were dealt a very difficult hand of cards in life – and to be honest that given the same conditions of life, God knows where I’d have ended up. I know that there are criminals who are a danger to themselves and a danger to society but my experience tells me that crime and criminality have a range of contributing factors that if addressed early enough, can lead people in other directions that are more beneficial to them and ultimately to society. From my own experiences, I can think of many who with a little help, set their sights on brighter futures, who went on to get married and rear their families with dignity.  

We know that the lives of many, many young people can be scarred by poverty, drugs and general disadvantage but we also believe that with kindness, compassion and care, the dignity and beauty of the individual can be rediscovered and restored. We believe that is why Jesus is found so often at meals with the rejected, the outcasts and the public sinners and prostitutes. He joins them to share food and friendship, so that they can rediscover a sense of their own worth, their own self-esteem and their own dignity.

It is because of those beliefs, because of our understanding of the dignity of every human person that our Church, like Christ himself, endeavours to reach out to those who are locked away from society.

As a society and because of our concern for the dignity of every human person we are determined to invest huge amounts of money in the care of the sick, the aged, the people with special needs but we are quite happy to let our brothers and sisters  ‘decay’ in our prisons. Hearing horrific stories about conditions in some of our prisons at home and abroad, forces me to think that from a basic humanitarian level, something has to change. Politicians generally don’t lead on issues like this. They can be forced to succumb to public pressure. If we are really committed to reducing crime in society we need to revaluate the purpose of prison and sentencing. It is right to punish people for their crimes but punish thoughtfully and punish constructively, so that we can reduce recidivism.

Challenges for Pastoral Care Workers
Pope Benedict highlights a number of challenges which pastoral care workers may encounter.

The pastoral care worker can be seriously burdened not only by the needs of the person but by the levels of accountability and the trails of paper work and procedures that seem to get in the way of the work that should be our primary focus. These developments can be very burdensome at times and can cause discord in the heart of the pastoral care worker. People can feel resentful towards increasing layers of bureaucracy. Pope Benedict says that when confronted with these challenges it is important to hold on to “a profound and authentic unity of heart, spirit and action”.

Pope Benedict also points out that those actions of love undertaken by each and every person are not exclusively aimed at immediate tasks. The actions of love that support a process of integral human development are aimed at “achieving a greater humanisation of society”. The Pope’s Encyclical Caritas in Veritate promotes the view that if we are to humanise society our efforts must aim at building “a civilisation of love whose seed God has planted in every people and in every culture”.

The call of the Gospel is to build “A Civilization of Love”. There is of course an unconscious underlying narrative which proposes that “A Civilization of Love” can only come into being if we lock up and ignore certain cohorts of our population.                                                                             

The Church believes that we will never enjoy a civilisation of love while some of our brothers and sisters are rejected, forgotten and living in squalid conditions.    

Pastoral Care Workers and Prisoners
In all of this we must never lose sight of the role that prisons play in society. Judicial and penal institutions play a foundational role in society. They aim to protect citizens and in their own way, the common good. They also have another very important role and that is to rebuild social relationships disrupted by crimes committed.  In his address to the International Commission of Catholic Pastoral Care Workers in 2007, Pope Benedict the XVI, reminded those involved in the welfare and support of prisoners and their families that:  

“these institutions (prisons) must contribute to rehabilitation of offenders, facilitating  their transition from despair to hope and from unreliability to dependability”.      

He recognised this was not an easy task and reminded the gathering that their role required “much patience and perseverance” where one encounters “disappointment and frustration”. There are also times of joy and inspiration when “prisoners are reconciled with their families and friends and assume responsibilities and duties which enable them to conduct upright and honest lives within society”.

Families and Prisoners
There is no doubt whatsoever that families can suffer untold anxiety when their loved one is incarcerated abroad. They wait patiently in the hope that one day their family member will return home. They also hope and pray that with the opportunity for reflection and rehabilitation their son or daughter, their husband or wife, their mother or father, may return to society with a renewed sense of their dignity and worth and that they will not be embittered with the experience of prison.

Families vary in their attitude towards their loved ones when they are initially imprisoned.  For some there is an increasing strain on social relationships which weakens bonds because of few visits, or the impact of constant supervision during visits. For others there can be a sense of relief because the behavioural, emotional or financial strains the person had imposed on the family are lifted. Prison sentences can provide the opportunity for re-engaging the person without the presence of these excessive burdens. However, these environments can also undermine a person’s confidence and inhibit his or her ability to make decisions. Many surveys and studies demonstrate the impact of a prison sentence on other members of the family. They all indicate that prison puts pressure on family bonds.

Studies also show how vitally important families are when a person is released. The family will generally assist with the integration of a prisoner back into society and it helps hugely to reduce the rate of recidivism. Families for a prisoner represent the extended family of spouse, of parents, of siblings, of grandparents, uncles, aunts etc.

Civil Society Needs Organisations like the ICPO
When someone arrives in an Irish prison they are given a number, all their possessions are taken away, they are stripped before officers, possibly body searched and then told to shower. They are then photographed and finger printed. Details of next-of-kin are recorded. They are allocated a single cell if lucky or perhaps temporary quarters in holding cells. They can make a phone call once daily. They will generally know the language and converse with other prisoners. Then they may get a meal. This may seem harsh treatment and a very tough start, often to a long sentence, but it is luxury by comparison with what happens when a person is arrested and imprisoned overseas.

The prisoner is miles from home and maybe totally out of contact with family and friends. If it is a European country, other than England, he or she will not know the language and may not even know what crime they are being arrested for. How will they get legal help? Will they be in prison for days, weeks or years? How are they going to let family and friends know where they are and why they are there? There is isolation, self-blame, even despair.

Every prisoner overseas is someone’s son or daughter, husband or wife and for Christians he or she is our sister or brother in Christ
When the family at home gets word of a sibling or friend being arrested abroad their agony can be intensified by total lack of contact. This is where the strong working relationships, built over many years, through mutual cooperation and respect, between the ICPO, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Irish missionaries, apostolates and others, can offer comfort and hope to families. Only those who have experienced it can know the true horrors experienced but I think it is probably fair to say that accurate and useful information can help reduce some of the stress experienced.

The presence of the ICPO reminds all of us that we cannot just exclude, ignore or disregard portions of our population. The ICPO has an important mandate to represent an all too easily forgotten sector of people, namely Irish prisoners overseas and their families. We have all witnessed in our time occasions when powerful political considerations or emotive campaigns have obscured the truth and have generated outcomes that are damaging to the common good.

I cite by way of example ICPO’s work in helping to overturn the mandatory deportation of Irish prisoners from the U.K. and its engagement with the Irish authorities on the important issue of prisoner transfers.

These are just some examples which show how vital it is to have organisations like the ICPO involved in the pastoral care of prisoners abroad:

1.  They remind civil society that this section of the population has rights that cannot be ignored.

2.  They ensure that every citizen is innocent until proven guilty and deserves every support to try and prove their innocence and to argue their case in different jurisdictions.

3. The example above shows how easily the finest principles of democracy and justice can be undermined.

4.  Finally it shows that it is often the voice of those who serve the most vulnerable that reminds civil society to refocus its energy on core principles upon which a civilized society functions.

Numbers and Jurisdictions
It is the day to day work of the ICPO which gives it such great credibility.

In the year ending 30 April 2010, 452 prisoners from twenty five countries were on the books of the ICPO office in Maynooth. The majority of these, 387, were imprisoned in England and Wales, with a further 200 Irish prisoners in Britain, on ICPO London records. The prison conditions and safety of Irish prisoners in some of the 25 different countries where Irish people are incarcerated, continues to be a major cause of concern.

In spite of the overwhelming workload, a lot of good work is being done:

  • Between May 2009 and April 2010 ICPO London made 150 prison visits to fifty prisons and visited 400 Irish prisoners. Prison visits were also made in the United States and some European countries.
  • The ICPO office in Maynooth received over 2,200 case related contacts from prisoners, families, embassies and other organisations and undertook 2,400 actions on behalf of clients. This equates to nearly 390 contacts or actions per month.
  • The ICPO office in London received an average of 54 phone calls per week relating prisoner’s welfare. It sent out 1,189 letters to prisoners and 465 letters to organisations and individuals on their behalf.
  • There are over one hundred families in contact with the ICPO at any one time.
  • All prisoners on the mailing list received during the year;

– Two editions of the newsletter, ICPO News;
– A card – with a summary of Irish news – at Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day;
– The Irish Immigrant Newsletter is sent to at least fifty prisoners on a monthly basis;   
– The ICPO Pen-Friend scheme has approximately eighty volunteers who correspond with Irish prisoners at any one time.

In these challenging economic times and in light of increasing emigration, the priority of ICPO right now is to maintain the level of services provided to prisoners and their families, and to focus on:

  • Casework and Counselling;
  • Prison Visits;
  • Family Support;
  • Improving Information Resources;
  • Preparing for the implementation of EU legislation on the transfer of Probation sanctions and Prisoner Transfers between States.

Studies amongst former prisoners show that information that addressed matters such as entitlements to phone calls, appointments with doctors, educational facilities, accumulated visiting hours, or the simply the provision of a newsletter may seem like a small gesture to us but they are interpreted by prisoners and their families, not just as items of information but occasions of strong emotional support. The support indicates an investment in and a belief in a section of the population who thought they had been forgotten.  If the State wishes to reduce recidivism seriously, then it must continue to support organisations like the ICPO and the others here today.

I know the ICPO would like me to acknowledge the support of the State, in particular the Department of Foreign Affairs, and indeed bodies like St Vincent De Paul Society, which provide such a powerful support for individuals and families in difficult times like these, and which in fact helps to fund the ICPO. The ICPO receives great assistance from the Probation Service and other organisations like PACE, the Linkage programme, Trail, Alone, NIACRO and Crosscare’s Migrant Project. This help is especially welcome when a prisoner is just released and when they are most vulnerable. ICPO also sincerely appreciates the great work of prison chaplains across the countries and their ongoing assistance to ICPO.

Society can learn very significant lessons from the work of ICPO. Pope Benedict has spoken of the need to lead prisoners from despair to hope and from unreliability to dependability. Surely organisations all over our country today are involved in this task of supporting people on the journey from despair to hope.

The State and all of us must confront the drivers of breakdown in society – family breakdown, economic dependency, education failure, addiction and debt.    

Let us hope and pray that those who form future budgets will be totally conscious of how important families, economic independence and education are for the health of society. As we face into a difficult budget next month, the ministry to prisoners, like that of the ICPO, calls on all of us and especially on the Government to support families in every way possible.

Whether we are reflecting on the causes of delinquency and crime or the reintegration of prisoners into society the family emerges again and again as the most important institution in society. Tragically marriage breakdown in Ireland is on the increase more than ever and those who call for the support of the family and marriage by the State are written off as old fashioned conservatives are perceived to be out of touch.

Studies show that a strong family unit is important for prisoner rehabilitation and indeed is important in preventing a person ending up in prison in the first place, as outlined in the work of the Social Policy Group in Britain.  Furthermore evidence today suggests that if families are properly supported the benefits to society are immense.


9 November 2010

+ Christopher Jones

Notes for Editors
The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO), a pastoral outreach established by the Catholic Bishops of Ireland in 1985, is hosting a conference today, Tuesday 9 November 2010, celebrating its 25th anniversary.  The conference is entitled “Bridging the Distance – Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and their Families“.  President Mary McAleese, Uachtarán na hÉireann and founding member of the ICPO, will address the conference, which takes place in the Aisling Hotel, Parkgate St, Dublin.

Bishop Séamus Hegarty, Bishop of Derry and chair of the Bishops’ Council of Emigrants, opened the conference which is chaired by Ms Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Affairs editor of the Irish Independent.  The aim of the conference is to explore and raise awareness about the practical, policy and pastoral issues which apply to this uniquely vulnerable category of Irish emigrant.   See full programme below.

A special feature on the ICPO 25th anniversary conference is now available on  The feature includes an interview with Mr Brian Hanley, Co-ordinator of the ICPO, background information, details of the conference programme including biographical information on the speakers and information on the services provided by the ICPO.  Texts and presentations from the conference will be added as they become available.
(i) An important contribution to this special anniversary conference will be made by a former client of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas.  The ICPO is grateful to our former client for agreeing to participate at the conference.  The former client’s decision to speak about his/her experiences in an overseas prison was made on the condition that the client’s anonymity be respected.  Print journalists in attendance and reporting on conference proceedings are asked to respect our former client’s wish for anonymity.

(ii) Photographers are asked not to attend this ICPO conference due to the participation, and attendance as guests, of former prisoners and their families.  ICPO asks photographers to respect this request as it represents the wishes of prisoners and their families.  For publication purposes, conference photographer John McElroy will circulate still photographs taken during the proceedings to all media outlets today, 9 November 2010.  In advance, the ICPO wishes to thank the media for its cooperation concerning these sensitive matters.

  • It is estimated that, at any one time, there are up to 800 Irish people in prison overseas.  The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas works for Irish prisoners overseas wherever they are: we make no distinction in terms of religious faith; the nature of a prison conviction or of a prisoner’s status.  ICPO has contact with Irish people in prison in more than 20 countries around the world.
  • The ICPO offers a comprehensive service to prisoners and to prisoners’ families which includes: provision of information on repatriation and deportation, assists in making referrals to post release support agencies for those returning to Ireland, a hardship fund for prisoners where access to food, water and medical treatment are very real concerns.
  • Loneliness and isolation is common amongst Irish people imprisoned overseas.  The ICPO operates an extensive prison visiting programme in Britain and elsewhere and provides a newsletter twice yearly to its clients.  ICPO provides a pen friend scheme, language books and dictionaries where needed.
  • In recognition of the hardship endured by prisoner’s families, ICPO offers assistance with prison visits, information about the different issues affecting their loved one in prison and holds a Family Day each year.
  • Programme for the ICPO 25th Anniversary Conference, ‘Bridging the Distance – Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and their Families’, on 9 November 2010 in the Aisling Hotel, Parkgate St, Dublin:

Chair: Ms Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Affairs Editor, Irish Independent

10:00   Registration, Tea/Coffee

10:45   Bishop Séamus Hegarty, Bishop of Derry, Chair, Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants

Opening Address

11:00   Bishop Christopher Jones, Bishop of Elphin, Chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Pastoral Care and President of ACCORD

The pastoral care of prisoners overseas and their families

11:30   President Mary McAleese, Uachtarán na hÉireann

12:15   Mr Jago Russell, CEO, Fair Trials International

Securing a fair trial overseas

12:45   Questions and Answers session

13:00   Lunch

14:15   Ms Marie Cross, Assistant Secretary, Passport and Consular Division, Department of Foreign Affairs

The challenges involved in the provision of consular services to Irish prisoners overseas

14:30   Ms Lisa Cuthbert, Director, PACE. PACE is a community based voluntary agency that works with people of an offending background who have experienced periods of imprisonment.

The importance of post-release support for Irish citizens returning from prison overseas

14:45   Ms Philomena Cullen, Director, Irish Chaplaincy in Britain (ICB) and Mr Conn MacGabhann, Project Researcher, ICB

Irish Travellers in Prison – Research Project

15:00   A former ICPO client, under the condition of anonymity, has agreed to speak about his experiences in an overseas prison

15:15   Questions and Answers session

15:45   Closing Remarks

Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications 086 172 7678
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer 087 310 4444