The quality of interaction between prisoners, their partners and children strengthened following a pilot project that was carried out in Mountjoy Prison.

The Reach Out programme involved families learning to communicate within a prison environment, which allowed prisoners to begin to parent from within the walls of the prison.

Described as 'an inside out' approach to parenting, it included specifically designed modules on child development, enhanced communication and weekly parent-based mentoring.

Research of the Reach Out pilot project - developed by Archways on behalf of FusionCPL (Community Prison Link) - showed that such programmes help reduce re-offending, breaking the cycle of intergenerational crime.

Studies have found that if prisoners lose contact with their children in the first three years of their sentence, re-engagement strategies with their children often prove unproductive.

The research has shown that the absence of a strong family relationship upon release deprives the prisoner of a loving anchor, which can effectively prevent re-offending, according to FusionCPL Manager Kathy Watts.

"Early and sustained contact between the prisoner and their children in the initial phase of a jail sentence is therefore vital," according to Ms Watts.

The research carried out on the pilot project showed that families are often the main source of hope for people during their incarceration, the main support upon release and the primary barrier to repeat offending.

Dr Seán McDonnell of Archways, who conducted the evaluation of the Reach Out programme, said there were higher degrees of personal awareness of the value of freedom to the prisoners and their families, and equally the impact imprisonment had on their families as a result deepening relationships.

The research also found that visits between prisoners and their families became more positive with much higher quality communication and interaction, especially listening by the prisoners.

There was greater openness, calmness and honesty between prisoners and their children and prisoners' expectations and plans for themselves and their children were raised by the programme.

Those who took part in the Reach Out programme said they would like to see the range of family communication activities extended to include longer phone calls, including online calls, regular family days and hour-long visits for children with room for activities like playing sports.

There are calls for the programme to be mainstreamed throughout the prison service.