A high-security prison which houses some of the UK’s most dangerous inmates has become the first in the country to open its doors to visits by autistic children.
Maghaberry near Belfast contains republican and loyalist paramilitaries as well as life sentence murderers behind its razor-wire fences and high walls.
Jails can be challenging environments for youngsters with disabilities.
Restrictions on medicine and unfamiliar surroundings may make seeing their fathers all but impossible.
Officials believe the pioneering initiative involving a specially adapted creche with sensory toys and apparatus is helping rehabilitation of fathers who can see their children for the first time in years.
Governor Dave Savage told the PA news agency exclusively: “The reactions in those rooms are worth their weight in gold – stones have cried.”
More than a dozen inmates now see their autistic and disabled children and grandchildren in the dedicated unit.
The separate visits, which allow a child to bring in his or her medication and other pieces of medical equipment, are held monthly and provide prisoners with an opportunity to engage with their loved ones.
Mr Savage described one occasion where a boy aged nine or 10 with impaired development sat on his father’s knee for almost the entire duration of the visit.
He said: “There were tears of joy, it was out of this world.”
Another prisoner met his daughter for the first time in four years.
Mr Savage, governor in charge of residence and prison safety at Maghaberry, said: “Positive relationships and family connection can have huge benefits for people in custody and their families, and Maghaberry recognises the need to support and enhance a family life balance.
“Such visits were not previously available within the prison.
“Research also indicates that positive relationships can significantly reduce the likelihood of reoffending, thus contributing to a safer society.”
One prisoner said it had been a “huge change” after serving nearly half of an eight-year sentence without having the facilities available to see his children due to their disabilities.
He said: “Having not seen them in years, I am excited to see how they have grown and to help keep the family unit together.
“It now means that even though I am in prison, my children aren’t being punished by not being able to see me.”
Senior officer Amanda Wilson, who runs the initiative, said for some prisoners and families it can be quite emotional.
“Having the ability to interact and engage with children, there is a real sense of appreciation,” she said.