Catholic bishops celebrated 25 years assisting Irish prisoners in jails throughout the world this week by hosting a conference in Dublin.

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, a Catholic outreach program established by Bishops in Ireland in 1985, is as committed as ever to lending its support to Irish people in prison overseas.

The theme of this weeks conference was called "Bridging the Distance -- Supporting Irish Prisoners Overseas and Their Families."

Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry, chair of the Council for Emigrants of the Irish Bishops' Conference, said "it is estimated that at any one time, there are between 800 and 1,000 Irish people in prison overseas."

The highest number of Irish prisoners abroad are in the U.K. followed by the U.S. and then Australia.

The conference was very clear that they still work for all Irish prisoners wherever they are, "It makes no distinction in terms of religious faith, the nature of the prison conviction, or of a prisoner's status."

Hegarty said the council lobbies prison authorities, state officials and others, on the needs of its clients whether they are of a legal, medical, educational or practical nature.

"A hardship fund allows [the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas] to provide grants to prisoners where access to food, water and medical treatment are very real concerns."

"Loneliness and isolation is common amongst Irish people imprisoned overseas," he observed, and thus the council "operates an extensive prison visiting program in Britain and elsewhere and provides a newsletter twice yearly to its clients."

The council also liaises with prisoner's families and hosts a family support day each year.

"The hospitality of the Gospel is directed at those who are vulnerable and are in need," Bishop Hegarty said. "This is the tradition that we at the Irish Council for Emigrants and the Irish Council for Prisoners inherit and aspire to."

He added, "We are asked to bring this rich and inspiring tradition to bear on the challenges we face today."


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