Prisoners left at risk for sake of a phone call
Catholic prison reform group Pact (Prison Advice and Care Trust) has urged the government this week to improve communications for prisoners.
Research carried out by charities Prison Reform Trust, INQUEST and Pact indicated most of the facilities in England and Wales are failing in their duty to ensure the emergency phone lines are in place.
This is in serious breach of Government policy which says families should be able to share concerns “without delay” using a dedicated phone line, the report said.
Calls to prison hotlines set up for relatives to report urgent fears about suicidal inmates and those at risk of self-harm are going unanswered, according to a report.
AN INEFFECTIVE COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM
Just one in 10 prison safeguarding departments answer phone calls from families worried about the welfare of inmates, research suggested.
Some calls made to the “safer custody” phone lines were claimed to have been put straight through to answer phone, messages were not answered or the numbers did not even work.
It added: “At a time of unprecedented levels of self-harm in prisons, charities are calling on prisons to protect the lives of people in prison and address these critical failures.
“In 12 months to March 2019 there were 58,000 self-harm incidents in prisons – compared to 26,000 a decade earlier.”
FRUSTRATION FOR CALLERS
The report said:
-Almost two in five prisons in England and Wales appeared to have no functioning dedicated safer custody telephone lines for families to get in touch.
– Of these, nearly one in five prisons 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 operational, was not answered, or went through to a general prison switchboard.
– Of the 75 dedicated safer custody telephone lines that went through to the right departments, only 13 were answered by a member of staff.
– In total, 62 prisons put the caller straight through to an answer machine. Of these, 36 did not provide another number to call instead; four had no recorded message from the prison; one message said: “We may not be able to call you back due to data protection.”
Relatives told how they had to ring repeatedly to get an answer and concerns were only acted on once they involved a warning of “threat to life”, researchers said.
An independent review by Lord Farmer previously recommended all prisons establish a system so relatives could relay urgent concerns. It 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.
Andy Keen-Downs, Chief Executive of Pact, urged the Government to “recognise this is unfinished business” and work with them “as a priority” to solve the problem.
One of the family members Pact spoke to recounted 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.”
DEVELOPING BETTER RESOURCES
Commenting on the report, Andy Keen-Downs 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. We urge the Government to recognise this is unfinished business in terms of its public commitment to implement Lord Farmer’s recommendations.”
Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, said: “The ability of a family to contact prisons to raise concerns about their relative can be the difference between life and death.
“These concerns are not new.
“We hope that the recommendations of this new report are implemented and do not gather dust.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This report shows that the problem is a very long way from being solved.
“Lives may depend on the ability to get an urgent message through – every prison should have a system in place and be testing it regularly.”
Bosses have been told to “personally assure effective communications systems” are in place in prisons by Thursday 7 November, the Ministry of Justice said.
They must make sure calls are logged and ways in which families can speak to the duty governor or officer in charge about imminent risks, as well as an answerphone for less urgent matters.
A Samaritans scheme is also being funded, whereby each offender is assigned a prison officer for support and phones are being installed in cells so inmates can keep in touch with relatives, the department added.
A CATHOLIC VISION
PACT is trying to implement a particular vision, inspired by the Gospel and Catholic social teaching. It reads: “Our vision is of a society in which justice is understood as a process of restoration and healing, in which prisons are used sparingly and as places of learning and rehabilitation, and in which the innate dignity and worth of every human being is valued.” Human beings are not valued when they cannot contact a family member who is in prison. Prisoners are not valued when they cannot make contact, so this improvement in communications for prisoners and their families is long overdue. Let’s make sure we keep prisoners and their families in prayer, uniting with Christ who identifies with each prisoner and each person who suffers.Tags: catholic, Catholic Church, communications, faith, imprisoned, PACT, phone, Prison Reform Trust, UK