"Pact are brilliant. They help me to stay positive. They've helped me a lot."

Pact was delighted to welcome Bishop Marcus Stock on a visit to the women's prison HMP New Hall on a very cold day last week. Pact is the national Catholic charity supporting people in prison and their children and families. The charity works in more than 60 prisons, including New Hall in the West Yorkshire countryside in the Diocese of Leeds. The quote above is what one of the women said to Bishop Marcus.

In the Family and Visitors' Centre, outside the gate, Pact CEO Andy Keen-Downs introduced Bishop Marcus to the regional staff team, who explained what they do. The Visitor Centre is where visiting friends, family members, and children can grab a cup of tea and rest after what may well have been a long journey. Pact staff and volunteers are welcoming and knowledgeable, helping people sort out their documents, advise about any concerns, and prepare emotionally for their visit. There are also Anglican Mothers' Union volunteers who support Pact's approach by operating the Visitor Centre kitchen, providing hot drinks and a friendly chat.

Andy said:

I was especially pleased to introduce Bishop Marcus to Catherine, the newest member of the Pact team. Catherine is one of two new Family Resettlement workers for the prison. These roles are part of a pilot project across nine women's prisons, for which Pact was awarded funding from HM Prisons and Probation Service.

Catherine and those taking up the same role elsewhere will provide skilled, intensive support for women preparing for release from prison and through the gate. Drawing on Pact's longstanding expertise, Catherine will help women strengthen relationships with family members and others who can support them. She will work with partners like probation and Women's Centres so that women leaving prison have a coordinated and supported journey back into the community.

Inside the prison, we showed Bishop Marcus the Visits Hall, where family members meet each other for an hour or two. Often, the journey time is much longer than the visit itself. It was a busy day, and families were gathered around the small tables, chatting and eating snacks, overseen by prison officers. There were lots of children, perhaps in the care of grandparents or siblings, visiting their mum.

In the chapel, Bishop Marcus met with the RC Chaplain Eileen Shea and a group of the women. The women spoke highly of Eileen and were so grateful for her work, supporting and nurturing them in their faith. One said, "The quiet prayer and meditation just helps me to cope. It helps to calm me down." Senior prison staff joined the group in the chapel, leading to a valuable dialogue. Bishop Marcus talked about his experience visiting other prisons in the Leeds diocese. The women shared some of their painful stories, such as leaving prison with nowhere to go, rejected by family, and ending up back inside. Andy encouraged the women to speak to Pact staff about their needs. 

Several of the women expressed their concern about leaving prison and finding a Catholic community where they can continue to feel that they belong. This was a theme which struck Bishop Marcus particularly. He offered to have a follow-up meeting with Pact to explore what more the Church and Pact can do to provide a place of welcome for women leaving the prison.

After the visit, Andy said:

As I waited outside the prison for my cab back to the station - an expensive journey that many visiting families must make - the temperature dropped below zero. I thought about those women leaving the warmth of the prison chapel or the visits room and going back to their cells. I thought about them leaving the prison and their fear not only of the cold weather and of a life on the streets but of the cold hearts of a world that has rejected them time and time again.

Pact appreciates the support of Catholic and Christian people. You make so much of our work possible. If you are interested in supporting families affected by imprisonment, consider joining the Pact team as a staff member or volunteer. We offer full training and support and would love to have you.