A new report published today has found that families are struggling to share urgent concerns about their loved ones in prison because Safer Custody departments are not answering their phones.

The joint report by Pact, the Prison Reform Trust and INQUEST looks at the provision of safer custody telephone lines across the prison estate in England and Wales – dedicated emergency phone lines for family members and others to share urgent concerns including self-harm and suicide risks of their loved ones in prison. The report finds that the provision of safer custody telephone lines is patchy, under-resourced and even non-existent in some prisons, leaving families struggling to share their concerns with prison staff.

The report reveals that:

  • Just one in 10 Safer Custody departments answer phone calls from worried family members.
  • Over 80% of dedicated safer custody lines that went through to Safer Custody departments (62 prisons in total) put the caller straight through to an answer machine.
  • Almost two in five (37%) prisons in England and Wales appeared to have no working dedicated safer custody telephone line for families to get in touch.
  • Of these, nearly one in five prisons (18%) had no publicly advertised number for a dedicated safer custody telephone line.
  • A further 18% of prisons advertised a dedicated line, but when called the number either wasn’t working, wasn’t answered or went through to a general prison switchboard.

Lord Farmer’s independent review on strengthening family ties recommended that all prisons establish a communications system for families to share urgent safety concerns. Prison policy now also requires prisons to have a way for families to get in touch “without delay” when they want to share their concerns. This new report shows that this is not happening.

One of the family members we spoke to told us of her ongoing struggle to share concerns with the prison about her father’s serious mental health issues: “Over the last two weeks I have raised no less than eight safeguarding alerts to the prison using their voicemail service. Six of them were ignored. I should be helping him and I’m powerless. I’m not trying to circumnavigate the system - I’m just trying to keep him safe.”

Commenting on the report, Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive of Pact, said: “As the charity for prisoners’ families, we are pleased that HMPPS have agreed to meet with us to explore how we can work together to address these shortcomings, and develop consistent and properly resourced safer custody hotlines and procedures for all prisons.”

Families who are worried about a loved one in prison can also get in touch with the Prisoners’ Families Helpline for guidance and support on 0808 808 2003 (from 9am – 8pm Monday to Friday and from 10am – 3pm on Saturday and Sunday).

Pact's online Visitors’ Guides for all prisons in England and Wales are currently being updated to include contact details for Safer Custody departments where they are available. Please do keep checking back as more Safer Custody details are added each day. 

Read the full report about Safer Custody provision here.

Read Lord Farmer’s recommendations here.

For more information about this report or Pact's work please contact [email protected].