THE GOLDEN THREAD: Evaluation of the Pact Helpline for the families of prisoners and people with convictions

New report shows that the number of callers to a charity helpline for prisoners’ families has more than doubled in the space of one year, with record numbers of callers concerned about the risk of death or injury to loved ones in prison.

Calls to Pact have more than doubled from 4,000 to over 8,000 in the past year, with around one in three families now getting in touch because they are afraid of serious harm coming to their family members in prison.

The findings come from a new report by Dr Lucy Wainwright and Paula Harriott for the Prison Reform Trust.

The researchers found that:

  • There has been an unprecedented rise in the number of calls from prisoners’ families received by the Pact helpline over the course of one year.
  • The nature of the calls has changed and have become more about prisoner safety than ever before.
  • There are higher numbers of ‘safeguarding’ cases (cases concerning safety of prisoners, including violence, bullying, self-harm and suicide risk), and the trend line suggests the rise will continue.
  • Evidence from the performance reports and interviews with family members point towards a major barrier in communication between families and the Prison System, either in terms of getting a message through initially or in terms of knowing what happens once the message has been passed on. 
  • Family members appear not to speak to many people about their loved ones in prison, for fear of judgement. The Pact helpline therefore represents an important source of connection and trust for those who desperately need it.

The name of the report was chosen to reflect the remarks made by Lord Michael Farmer, whose report last August on prisoners and their families was welcomed by the Ministry of Justice as ‘ground-breaking’. At the time, he said:

My report is not sentimental about prisoners’ families, as if they can, simply by their presence, alchemise a disposition to commit crime into one that is law abiding. However, I do want to hammer home a very simple principle of reform that there needs to be a golden thread running through the prison system and the agencies that surround it. That principle is that relationships are fundamentally important if people are to change.

One of the key recommendations of Lord Farmer’s report was that effective ‘communication gateways’ be established, to enable families who have serious worries and information to share about the safety of family members in prisons to inform prison management, to ensure that steps can be taken.  However, this new report indicates that the situation is getting worse for many people in prison and for their families.

Commenting on the report, Andy Keen-Downs, CEO of Pact said:

We hear from hundreds of prisoners’ families who call us in desperation because they know that their loved one in prison is in serious trouble and may be at imminent risk of injury or death, but simply can’t get through to anyone in the prison to let them know, or if they do, no one takes them seriously. Our service is a lifeline, but it should not be necessary. We need Ministers to recognise that when they talk about getting the basics right in our prison system, that must include working with the families to keep their loved ones safe, and ensuring all prisons have effective safer custody hotlines for families that work. We shouldn’t have to wait until the Inquest for families of prisoners to have their voices heard.

Further commenting on the report, Anne Fox, CEO of Clinks said:

This report shows the invaluable support Pact staff and volunteers provide through their helpline. It highlights the increasing difficulties faced by families of people in prison particularly in relation to safety and safeguarding of people in prison and the problems families have when trying to communicate with prisons. In this environment it is vital families receive accurate information and feel supported at what is a very difficult time and it is clear that they trust Pact to give them the help they need.

Key facts

  • Between 2013 and 2017, 1,364 people died in prison in England and Wales. 447 of those took their own life, and 21 were killed by a fellow prisoner. (source: Prison Reform Trust)
  • Prisoners who maintain regular family contact are 39% less likely to re-offend on release than those who lose contact with their families.(source: Ministry of Justice)
  • Prisoners who are supported by a Family Engagement Worker show reduced levels of anxiety, improved behaviour and safety (source: Pact)
  • Under Chris Grayling, prison officer numbers were cut by around one third, whilst the prison population remained steady
  • The Ministry of Justice is recruiting up to 2500 new officers, which represents about one third of the number of staff who were cut.

A Pact spokesperson is available for interview

Contact: [email protected]

0207 735 9535

Pact Helpline: 0808 808 3444