PRISONERS’ SUNDAY: national Catholic charity Pact provides a lifeline for those serving sentences

For Catholic Network

Prisoners’ Sunday 10th October

It was Michael’s first time in prison, and he was desperate for it to be his last. But the arrival of Covid-19 meant that the world had changed beyond all recognition. Michael would also be homeless on release: his rental agreement had been terminated due to his imprisonment and he had lost everything. As his release date approached, Michael was referred to Pact’s Through the Gate team for support. That’s when he met Annabel, one of Pact’s Mentors. Although she couldn’t visit in person because of Covid-19 restrictions, Annabel contacted Michael using Email-a-Prisoner and reassured him that Pact could help him through his first days on the outside. This was an enormous relief for Michael, who told Annabel that he was feeling extremely anxious and overwhelmed: he didn’t know how he was going to cope without somewhere to live – and he was in desperate need of some basics like a change of underwear and a coat.

Pact is the national Catholic charity providing support to people in prison, people with convictions, and their families. Today our President is His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols but Pact has been helping prisoners and their families for more than 120 years. While working with people of all faiths and none, our Catholic values shine through:  human dignity, respect, the belief that everyone can be redeemed whatever they have done. We know we have all done things we are not proud of. Nevertheless, we can be filled with hope since Jesus himself promised the ‘good thief’ that ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’

These have been difficult times for all of us but for prisoners during the height of the pandemic, they experienced being confined to their cells for more than 23 hours a day without access to the chapel, proper education and training, or any visitors. Working in around 70 prisons, creatively adapting our approach during the pandemic, Pact staff and volunteers have continued to support people like Michael to make a fresh start.

Pope Francis has made a point of encountering prisoners, treating them with respect, and including them among the ‘people of God’. Last month, during an Italian heatwave, he sent ice-cream to prisoners in Rome to help them cool down. In Fratelli Tutti, he says ‘a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others and act as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.’

Seven days a week, Pact staff and volunteers provide the busy national Prisoners’ Families Helpline and website. The criminal justice system can be confusing and difficult to negotiate for families. It can be a struggle to make contact with loved ones – a mum, or a spouse, may be taken straight into custody from the court for example. Families sometimes have important information about the physical and mental health of their loved one in prison and Pact helps them reach the right person to listen and act on their concerns.

In many communities across England & Wales, Pact’s befrienders support prisoners’ families who can find themselves serving a hidden sentence of shock, distress, isolation and practical hardship. The sad truth is that more children will experience having a parent in prison this year than will experience divorce. In the gospel, Jesus invites us, ‘I was in prison and you came to me’. In reality, visiting someone in prison is daunting. Families, including children, can expect to be searched and to be required to follow lots of rules.

A key part of Pact’s work is to help nurture family relationships, where appropriate, through this difficult time, so that the family can look forward with hope to a better future together. Research shows that ‘re-offending’ is reduced by 39% when that ‘golden thread’ of family connection is maintained. Lewis, a former prisoner who now supports Pact’s work, spoke to us about the positive impact of his own family relationships in helping him to be the person he ‘dreamed he could be’.

On Prisoners’ Sunday – and all year round – please remember prisoners, people with convictions, and their families, in your prayers. We are so grateful for the efforts of our volunteers.

Pact offers lots of ways to support prisoners and their families, both as individuals and as parishes. Visit the website to find our more. Email us parish.action@prisonadvice.org.uk. Finally, we appreciate any donation you are able to make.

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