2016: "It was the best of times and the worst of times"

Posted: January 27, 2017

Pact CEO Andy Keen-Downs reflects on 2016, a year which saw record rates of violence, self-harm and suicide in prisons, but also a year in which Pact was able to provide support to more prisoners and their families than ever before.

I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while recently. ‘How’s it going with Pact’ he asked? I struggled slightly to answer. And then a phrase from Charles Dickens popped into my tired head. ‘It’s the best of times and the worst of times’ I said.                                                                                     

So, why is it the worst of times? You have probably seen the reports in the media. Roughly every three days, a person is found dead in prison having taken their own life. At least 119 people killed themselves in prison in 2016. We abolished the death penalty, and yet such is the terrible state of affairs in too many of our prisons. And every day, somewhere in the prison system, there are numerous violent assaults between prisoners, attacks on prison officers, and other incidents. People are also self-harming, and turning to dangerous new psycho-active drugs as a way of medicating themselves from the bleak reality of their lives.

There are quite simply too many people in prison, too few prison staff, too many drugs, and far too little in the way of rehabilitation activity. As the recent tragic death of Dean Saunders highlighted, there are also too many people who are there because they are mentally ill, and because our health services fail to provide adequate secure residential care. Others are in prisons because they were not helped early enough when families fell apart, or addictions took hold. 

It sounds unremittingly grim. And yes, it has never been so tough. But this is where we work. It is our front line, our ‘office’. So why did I say it was the ‘best of times’? Well, one reason is that every day, Pact workers are making a real difference, not only in prisons, but in courts, in the community, and at the prison gate. We are reaching more people than ever before, with better impact, and a wider range of services. Keeping families together. Showing care and compassion. Providing practical support, from the courts to release, for people who have offended, their children, and their families. Working in a broken system to do what we can to help heal the wounds. But is that enough? Surely, the ultimate goal of a charity like Pact is to make ourselves unnecessary? To be able to shut up shop, with a sign on the door saying ‘Job Done’?

So whilst we are proud of being a ‘service’ charity, with sleeves rolled up, working in the mess with human beings who are in all sorts of trouble, when the opportunity arises to ‘speak truth to power’, we take it.

Which is why for the past few months, much of my time has been taken up working to assist Lord Michael Farmer and Dr Samantha Callan, to provide them with advice and support on the preparation of a new report into how men in prison can be supported to live good non-offending lives, as responsible family men, connected to their local communities. The report has been commissioned by the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, and it is expected to land in her in-tray within a matter of weeks.

My hope is that ‘The Farmer Report’ will be accepted by Government as a guiding document for prison reform, and that whilst change will take time, we can at least hope that changes will come.  To inform the report, Pact, working with CLINKS, the umbrella group of justice charities, helped organise the biggest ever consultation of prisoners’ families and prisoners on the subject of prison and family life carried out in the UK. We gave our service users a voice, and we are grateful to each and every one of them for sharing their experiences with us. We received hundreds of powerful testimonies about the changes that are needed.

So, as well as the worst of times, perhaps it’s the best of times too. A time when we are being listened to and respected for our expertise, and when an influential member of the House of Lords is championing the things that matter to us and to prisoners and families whose voices are seldom heard.

Pact has no funding for this kind of advocacy work, or for all the free advice and support we provide to prison staff, and the constantly changing line up of Government Ministers and officials, which is why we depend so much on the generosity of our donors and supporters. Thank you for your support. We need it now more than ever.

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