Theresa Alessandro from Pact (the Prison Advice and Care Trust) recently welcomed Bishop Marcus to the women’s prison in Flockton and has sent this report:
‘Pact are brilliant. They help me to stay positive. They’ve helped me a lot.’
This is what one of the women at HMP New Hall said to Bishop Marcus on a visit to the women’s prison HMP New Hall, on a very cold day last week. The Bishop’s visit was at the invitation of Pact: the national Catholic charity providing support to people in prison and their children and families. The charity works in more than 60 prisons including New Hall in the countryside near Wakefield. In the diocese they also work in the community supporting people who are trying to make a fresh start. Pact operates the National Prisoners’ Families Helpline on behalf of HMPPS and they responded to 600 calls from worried family members in the Leeds Diocese area in 2023.
Outside the prison gates, in the Family and Visitor Centre, Pact CEO Andy Keen-Downs introduced Bishop Marcus to the regional staff team who explained what they do. The Visitor Centre is where visiting friends, family members and children can grab a cup of tea and rest after what may well have been a long journey. Women in prison here come from a wide geographical area. Pact staff and volunteers are welcoming and knowledgeable, helping people to sort out their documents, advise about any concerns and prepare emotionally for their visit. There are also Anglican Mothers’ Union volunteers who support Pact’s approach by running the Visitor Centre kitchen, providing hot drinks and friendly chat.
Andy said, ‘I was especially pleased to introduce Bishop Marcus to Catherine, the newest member of the Pact team. Catherine is one of two new Family Resettlement workers for the prison. These roles are part of a pilot project across nine women’s prisons, for which Pact was awarded funding from HM Prisons and Probation Service. Catherine, and those taking up the same role elsewhere, will provide skilled, intensive support for women preparing for release from prison and through the gate. Drawing on Pact’s longstanding expertise, Catherine will help women to strengthen relationships with family members and others who can support them. She will work together with partners like probation and Women’s Centres so that women leaving prison have a co-ordinated and supported journey back into the community.’
Inside the prison, Bishop Marcus was shown the Visits Hall where family members meet each other for an hour or two. The Pact team explained that often the journey time is much longer than the visit itself. It was a busy day and families were gathered around the small tables, chatting and eating snacks, overseen by prison officers. There were lots of children, perhaps in the care of grandparents or siblings, visiting their mum.
In the chapel, Bishop Marcus met with the RC Chaplain Eileen Shea and a group of the women. The women spoke highly of Eileen and were so grateful for her work supporting and nurturing them in their faith. One said, ‘The quiet prayer and meditation just helps me to cope. It helps to calm me down.’ The group was joined in the chapel by senior prison staff, leading to a valuable dialogue. Bishop Marcus talked about his experience visiting other prisons in the Leeds Diocese. The women shared some of their painful stories, such as leaving prison with nowhere to go, rejected by family, and ending up back inside. Andy encouraged the women to speak to Pact staff about their needs.
Several of the women expressed their concern about leaving prison and finding a Catholic community where they can continue to feel that they belong. This was a theme which struck Bishop Marcus particularly. He kindly offered to have a follow up meeting with Pact to explore what more the Church and Pact can do to provide a place of welcome for women leaving the prison.
After the visit, Andy said, ‘As I waited outside the prison for my cab back to the station – an expensive journey that many visiting families must make – the temperature dropped to below zero. I thought about those women leaving the warmth of the prison chapel or the visits room and going back to their cells. I thought about them leaving the prison, and their fear not only of the cold weather and of a life on the streets, but of the cold hearts of a world that has rejected them time and time again.’
Pact appreciates the support of Catholic and Christian people who make so much of this work possible. If you are interested in supporting families affected by imprisonment, do consider how you and your parish can help the work of Pact. Can you be a Pact parish rep? The friendly team at Pact would love to have you!
Contact Pact’s Faith in Action team firstname.lastname@example.org
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More on the new resettlement worker role
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