Journeying from despair to hope

Staff writer, Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) – CSAN member

I was in prison and you came to see me

Matt 25:36

The sudden and unexpected arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic changed all our lives. Compelled to stay at home, to mix only in defined bubbles and to keep our distance, even from loved ones, was painful for us all and, for some, unbearably so. For those imprisoned, enforced separation is an everyday experience yet for prisoners and their family members, the sense of isolation, loneliness and the ensuing mental health issues which have resulted during these past 18 months have been unprecedented. ‘Banged up’ for 23+ hours each day, no access to work or education and a complete cessation of family visits have tested the resolve of everyone. Online ‘purple visits’ have helped to keep family links but, as we all experienced in some way or other, no extent of online contact can ever be a substitute to being physically present with those we love. Today the situation is cautiously, but gradually, improving as prisons move through the five Coronavirus alert stages. That said, family visits are still limited, inside the prison visitor halls children’s play areas and refreshment areas are largely not yet operational. The situation is far from ‘normal’ and the ‘new normal’ is likely to be different for some time to come.

Writing in Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis reminds us that “Jesus asks us to be present to those in need of help, regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group.” (FT 81). This can be a challenge, especially when those we are called to help may have caused great harm to others. Yet we would do well to remember that the first person to follow Christ into the Heavenly Kingdom was a convicted thief, “In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Grace knows no boundaries; “Christ shed his blood for each of us and…no-one is beyond the scope of his universal love.” (FT 85)

The impact of imprisonment on families with a family member in prison can be devastating. Families often feel ashamed, that they are to blame and must struggle on alone, often feeling ostracised and judged by association. How many such people are the ‘hidden’ in our parish communities, sitting alongside others in silence?  Imprisonment can, and does, happen to all ages and strata of society. Where and to whom do people turn when the unthinkable happens to them?

Jessie rang Pact’s 7 day a week Helpline. When Jessie’s husband was arrested and taken straight to prison, she was left alone with their children and without any income. On the verge of homelessness and with food in short supply, she didn’t know what to do. She explained to Alex, one of our Helpline volunteers, that her husband had always managed the family’s finances whilst she had focused her energy on raising their two children, aged 5 and 2. Jessie’s access to financial benefits had suddenly been stopped and both she and her husband were desperately worried about how she would manage. “I’ve never had to do this before,” she explained.

Despite being new to her volunteer role at Pact, Alex knew that Jessie was counting on her so set to work finding a way to help. She eventually found an organisation which was able to help Jessie get access to financial support. This was a great step forward, but the process was long and daunting and, in the meantime, Jessie’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. She was now receiving a small sum for the children, but it wasn’t enough to cover the basics, so the family had to rely on food banks. Jessie felt as though she’d let her children down.

When Jessie told Alex that she was having to choose between feeding her children or keeping them warm, Alex turned to Pact’s Welfare Grants: emergency funding designed to make an immediate difference to someone’s life. The grant application was approved within a few hours and later that afternoon Alex was able to send Jessie vouchers for food and clothing. Thanks to Alex’s support Jessie is now also able to access the benefits she desperately needs but it may still not be enough to sustain her until her husband returns home. Pact volunteer Alex remains in regular contact with Jessie to provide support and advice as she waits to find out if she and her children will be able to keep their home.

The Helpline is just one way in which Pact reaches out to support people affected by imprisonment. Pact volunteers and employees work in close co-operation with hardworking prison staff, chaplains, healthcare workers and others as part of prison multi-agency teams. Our services are in many prisons and communities in England & Wales, including:

  • Prison-based family workers
  • Mentoring for prisoners
  • Court Services
  • Prison Visitors’ Centres for children and families
  • Prison and community-based relationship and parenting programmes
  • The national Prisoners’ Families Helpline and website

The Lord calls us to cooperate with Him in building the Kingdom of God on earth, transforming our offerings into grace-filled moments which change lives. Pact’s JustPeople program is a new initiative aimed at encouraging, inspiring and motivating people to explore how faith can be put into action, in practical ways, by volunteering with Pact. Starting in London and the South-East, JustPeople workshops will aim to help to strengthen parish communities through prayer, discernment and sharing, since it is in giving that we receive.

In describing the activities of Pact, our President Cardinal Vincent Nichols says, ‘This work is a direct expression of our discipleship and a very concrete expression of our desire to serve the Lord in those who are most vulnerable.’ In Jessie’s story we ‘see’ the positive impact of Pact’s work but even when we don’t ‘see’, we trust in Him. Changing hearts and minds is the Lord’s work. Who are we to judge?

Picture: Cardinal Nichols visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison, January 2022. Credit: Pact. Re-used with consent.