GUEST BLOG: Andy Keen-Downs of prison charity Pact says we need to rethink our approach to crime

It is still shocking to me, after so many years of raising this issue, to see how many mentally ill people are locked up in our prisons. We know that mentally unwell people get worse while they are inside. But those of us working in the criminal justice system must navigate two further, dreadful realities every day.

On the one hand, in response to Government policy, the number of women and men in prison is growing and this senseless growth is intended to continue.  On the other hand, Charlie Taylor, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has issued a damning indictment of the decline of prison regimes and the slow pace of recovery after Covid. In his annual report he says, ‘I have become increasingly frustrated by prisons whose future plans are so vague that it is hard to see when progress is going to be made.’ Behind all the news reports, and politics, there are human beings, our brothers and sisters, made in the image and likeness of God.

At Pact, we have called on the Government to halt the expansion of prison building. We are giving the same message, loud and clear, to the Labour party – whose conference falls at the same time as Prisoners’ Sunday.

Pact has reached an impressive milestone this year. The charity has been serving women and men in prison and their children and families, firstly in London and now in many parts of England & Wales, for 125 years. For me, 2023 will also be the year when, in response to my stumbling request, Pope Francis blessed an image of Mary Untier of knots on behalf of people in prison in England & Wales.

But as the criminal justice system continues to face huge challenges, there has been little time to reflect on the incredible privilege of encountering Pope Francis in person. As the number of incarcerated people grows, so does the number of children and family members caught up in serving a ‘hidden sentence’ with them.

Pact’s team of dedicated staff and volunteers have responded to 36,000 calls to the Prisoners’ Families Helpline this year – another number which is growing. I see every day how Pact’s frontline staff and volunteers bring hope and dignity to people in such awful situations. I know we change lives, and that sometimes we save lives, but sometimes I feel like we are trying to plug a wound that won’t stop bleeding.

When I met Pope Francis, I was in Rome for the Centesimus Annus conference. The Holy Father spoke to us about the common good and a proper understanding of community. He said, ‘thinking and acting in terms of community means, therefore, making room for others, imagining and working for a future where each person can find his or her place and have room in the world’.

We must rethink our whole approach to crime. We need investment in youth and family services, community mental health provision, and, for the minority of people whose mental illness means they pose a risk to society, we need more and better secure therapeutic mental health facilities.  If we invested in the prevention of crime, and alternatives to custody for those who are ill, we could be closing dilapidated failing prisons, as some other countries are doing. There would be fewer future victims of crime and safer communities. I believe these fundamental changes, rooted in respect for the dignity of all human beings, would bring us closer to Pope Francis’ vision of a society where each person can find their place.

Andy Keen-Downs, CEO Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact)