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Help sought for prisoners — the ‘hidden’ victims of pandemic

14 January 2021

Ban on visiting is hell for prisoners and their families, say their pastors


A prison inmate makes a phone call, asking for a prayer

A prison inmate makes a phone call, asking for a prayer

PRISONERS and their families have become the hidden victims of the pandemic, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, says.

Prison visits have been suspended, and many inmates have no access to phones in their cells, or secure mobiles. “People are thinking a lot about schools and care homes at the moment, and how we can support them; prisons need to be pushed up the list,” Bishop Treweek, who is Bishop to Prisons, said. “It is a major issue. It is hard for all of us not being able to see people whom we love and care for, and it is exacerbated even more when a person is in prison.

“It is important to have that face-to-face in-cell telephony. Governors have told me that inmates really appreciate it. One of the really big issues is children with parents in prison.”

In answer to questions from Bishop Treweek in the Lords during lockdown, the Government said that it was distributing 1500 secure mobiles and establishing live video-calling in every prison in England and Wales. Other measures include allowing inmates to record a bedtime story for their child, or make them small gifts.

“The longer this goes on, the harder it gets,” she said. “It was hardest when those on the outside had their restrictions lifted and people on the inside didn’t. One governor told me, when she told inmates that when she went home she wouldn’t be able to see anyone either, they were quite astounded, but they also found it quite reassuring.”

She suggested that worshipping communities that had actively supported care homes with schemes such as writing letters to residents could do the same for prisoners and their families. “Stretch your imagination; don’t be scared to get involved,” Bishop Treweek said. “If you have a prison in your area, contact its chaplain to see if there are creative ways you might support them.

“I also ask that we keep them in our prayers, because it is a very difficult time. Families are often ashamed to say they have someone in prison; so how do we keep our ear to the ground, know who those people are, and how do we support them?”

Prison chaplains, who are the only visitors currently permitted inside prisons, have become a vital lifeline for families. “They have been amazing, doing cell-to-cell visits,” Bishop Treweek said. “They are great bridges between the inside and outside of prison. Families can make contact with them; they can check that people are OK. They are also very good at knowing local charities that can support families.”

There are about 1800 chaplains working in prisons in England and Wales. The Chaplain-General of Prisons and Archdeacon to Prisons, the Ven. James Ridge, said: “Chaplaincy teams continue to work hard to support prisoners who feel isolated during these difficult times, providing pastoral care and spiritual support. Their daily presence on the wings and landings is a reminder to prisoners that they have not been forgotten and that they are cared for. Chaplains have facilitated video calls for prisoners, especially at times of bereavement, enabling people to say goodbye to a dying loved one, or view a live-streamed funeral.

PRISON FELLOWSHIPA graphic shows how the Prayer Line works

“Whilst we work to support those in custody, we urge churches to provide similar pastoral care to families of prisoners who will be feeling equally cut off from an important source of support in these difficult times.”

One resettlement adviser with the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders said that the chaplains at their prison had become “incredibly close”, almost working as “a middle-man, passing prisoner concerns to us, and us responding.

“I do believe that this is a massive support for the gentlemen we work with, and it has provided them with a reassurance that things are in hand, which, in turn, should help them better prepare for their release, and hopefully prevent self-destruct mode on release and increased reoffending.”

About 260 volunteers from the New Bridge Foundation provide a “befriending” service, exchanging regular phone calls, letters, and emails with inmates. Its chief executive, Judith Smith, said: “There are many people in prison who are really missing visits, many whose mental health or well-being is being affected by the Covid-19 restrictions, but I genuinely believe that the Prison Service is doing its best.

“We support the volunteers with all sorts of things to send into prison: cards, word searches, quizzes. We get lots of feedback from people in prison who just think we are brilliant.”

The chief executive of the prisoners support group PACT (Prison Advice and Care Trust), Andy Keen-Downs, described lockdown in prison as “hell”. “Prisoners have endured living behind closed cell doors, in small cells, on their own, or with a ‘padmate’ they did not choose to be locked up with, with unscreened toilets, a small TV, a desk, and a bed. That’s been the experience of nearly 80,000 people, for nearly 24 hours every single day, with around 30 to 45 minutes per day out of cell.

“Whilst many will defend the situation as a necessary evil, the consequences are at this point incalculable. Prisons are perfect breeding grounds for infection; the whole prison system is struggling to manage outbreaks. HM Prison Service, chaplains, and charities all understand the reasons behind the restrictions, but we also share a common concern as to the damaging impact on prisoners’ mental and physical health, and the long-term impact on people’s rehabilitation.

“The importance of maintaining family ties is widely recognised as being the single most important factor in reducing reoffending and successful resettlement of ex-prisoners, and the lack of visits is taking its toll on many families.”

He appealed to the Government to increase prisoners’ access to video visits — currently 30 minutes a month — and to phones. “It’s not enough; nor is a few snatched minutes on a prison phone,” he said. “We’re asking for a little mercy.”

Peter Holloway, of the Christian charity the Prison Fellowship, said that it was difficult to imagine the impact of this separation. “To be in a prison cell for about 23 hours every day for an extended period is something that is so harmful it would not normally be allowed.”

Since lockdown began, the charity has opened a Prayer Line for prisoners to phone and request a prayer, and, over Christmas, its Angel Tree programme sent presents to thousands of children with handwritten notes from their parent in prison. A similar scheme is planned for Mothering Sunday. It also offers Bible studies, and sends letters to inmates. Its volunteers have gathered on video calls to pray for prisoners. “We know that we stand together before God with those who are inside,” Mr Holloway said. “They are in our church.”

The chair of the National Association of Official Prison Visitors, Roy Hanley, described the past 10 months as “a very challenging time” because most of its 500 security-screened volunteers had been unable to visit English and Welsh jails.

“There was some recommencement of visiting in September, mainly in the high security estate, but this ceased with the latest lockdown measures,” he said. Instead, they have communicated via letter-writing and email. They have also been given access to the “Purple Visits” secure video conferencing facility which was primarily set up for prisoners’ family and friends, and has been progressively introduced to all jails in England and Wales by the Prison Service.

A report, Life in Lockdown, published in October by the support charity Children Heard and Seen, said that there had been some improvements in contact. It went on to say, however, that the Government had been “woefully slow . . . to initiate meaningful and consistent alternatives”, which had left already vulnerable children “exposed to additional and compounding trauma”. 

It said: “This lack of consistency, exacerbated by a lack of clear communication from a number of prisons, has fostered an overwhelming sense of confusion and hopelessness in many families. The scope of long-term detriment suffered by these children as a result of this trauma is not yet measurable but remains deeply worrying.” 

It said that “truly little has changed” in the three years since a review by Lord Farmer of what works for prisoners and their families to reduce the risk of re-offending and inter-generational offending (News, 18 August 2017). 

Children Heard and Seen questioned 18 adults who cared for a child with a parent in prison, whom it estimated had responsibility for 38 children. Of these 18 adults, 82 per cent confirmed that there had been a negative effect on the physical and mental health of both those inside the prison and those outside, and that the lack of contact, worry about their loved one, and the impact on the children were the most problematic. 

Elsewhere, the report said: “The impact of having a loved one in prison has a far greater reach than visits. There are emotional, financial, physical and mental health concerns that must be acknowledged. In failing to do so, we fail children and families. This must not continue. We must do better.”

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