In our latest community grant partner spotlight article we speak to Pact’s Development Manager, Sophie McKane, and Welfare Grants Officer, Sarah Lange, about how the programme has impacted their work with women.
Please introduce Pact for those who may not be familiar
The Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact) is a charity that has been around since 1898 and cares for prisoners, people with convictions, their children and families. We currently work in more than 60 prisons across England and Wales providing support at every stage of the criminal justice process: in court, in prison, on release, and in the community.
One of the main focuses of our work is helping families to maintain their relationships, which come under immense strain when a loved one goes to prison. We help families to stay together, working in prisons providing one-to-one support to families, and offering other services including befriending, peer support groups, casework, and relationship and parenting courses.
In terms of our work with women, we are working in 10 women’s prisons in England (there are no women’s prisons in Wales). We have a number of projects that are specific to women, including:
Visiting Mum, which helps to strengthen relationships between children and their imprisoned mothers at HMP Downview, HMP Styal and HMP Eastwood Park.
Journeys to Freedom, which offers a holistic end-to-end resettlement support for women leaving prison in London and Kent.
Together a Chance, a project which is piloting two prison-based social workers at HMP Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire and in HMP Send in Surrey for the first time, one of the recommendations made by Lord Farmer in his report for the Ministry of Justice about the importance of strengthening women’s family ties to prevent reoffending and reduce intergenerational crime.
How did you come across Smallwood Trust and where did your relationship begin?
Our relationship really crystallised during the pandemic when we decided to pull together to do more to support women preparing to leave custody. With support from the Smallwood Trust, we created an Emergency Welfare Fund to help women leaving prison with essential items including food, clothes, toiletries, and PPE. Since then, we've continued to work together to help women to feel better prepared and equipped to leave prison and make a fresh start.
Where do you see the CGP programme having the most impact?
Many women lose all their possessions when they are sent to prison, so they leave prison in their prison tracksuit and plimsolls, without their own clothes, coat or proper shoes. It can take up to 5 weeks for a benefit claim to be processed - that’s a long time to survive without some help. Our grants offer women support during this period of transition. We provide a voucher so that they can go to the local supermarket and get some food, toiletries, clothes and shoes, as well as female hygiene products. It’s just an absolute lifesaver and the majority of the grants go towards these emergency survival items.
Our small grants also make a huge difference to women whose partners have been sent to prison. Many become single parents overnight, and then have to navigate the benefits system for the first time, especially if their partner was the main breadwinner. They are having to cope with the trauma of their partner going to prison, and supporting children who may have also witnessed and been traumatised by the arrest. So a small grant, usually shopping vouchers, provides them with some much needed breathing space.
What kind of support is traditionally offered to women as they prepare to move forward?
This varies enormously across England and Wales depending on what provision is available locally, but overall, much more support is needed nationally to help women to prepare to leave prison, and make a fresh start in the community. Sadly, the risk of homelessness on release is high for women.
Our Welfare Grants help women leaving prisons with practical things, such as getting ID, which only costs £20, but is vital for women to open a bank account, get accommodation, or set up a benefits claim. In recent months we helped one woman who was preparing to leave prison. She has a four-year-old daughter who is paralysed from the waist down. With support from Pact, she had taken part in parenting courses whilst in custody, and engaged with Social Services. They had told her that she could live with her daughter when she was released from prison, but only if she could create a safe environment for her. She had found accommodation, but she didn’t have a bed for her daughter, or money for a bed, so her daughter wasn’t allowed to stay with her. Thankfully, our partnership with the Smallwood Trust meant that we were able to fund the bed, so her daughter could move in with her, and the family could be reunited.
Through your work with people in custody and their families, would you say that women’s experiences are still underrepresented within the prison population?
In terms of the numbers, there’s currently 79,092 people in prison. About 3,000 are women, so that’s almost 4% of the total prison population. Overall, women are a minority within the criminal justice system. Many women in prison have high levels of mental health needs and histories of abuse. Being separated from their children when they come into custody takes an enormous toll, and is extremely painful to cope with.
The experiences that women have had whilst in custody during COVID have been distressing and traumatic. Self-harm increased dramatically. Time outside of cells was limited. In-person prison visits were suspended for long periods, and when families were able to visit, they were separated by Perspex screens. Many women took up ‘Purple Visits’ - remote video call visits with their loved ones. For others, the thought of visits was simply too painful at times. Many mums could not face the prospect of not being able to hug or hold their children.
How would you say PACT’s work aligns with Smallwood’s mission of enabling women to be financially resilient?
I think we align very well. A lot of the grants we give out are about survival, managing transitions, and emotional resilience. These grants support the resettlement of women - if the grant wasn’t available, women might go to a payday loan company, or end up in a much worse financial situation, or even go back to an inappropriate relationship as a source of survival. The grants are for essential items that women need to get back on their feet - whether this be a kettle, some bedding, nappies or school uniforms for children. In addition, Pact provide training courses in prisons around financial literacy, and we have support workers on-the-ground who are fully aware of the women’s lives, and that are helping them to rebuild their resilience, and prepare for the future.
If someone is reading this interview and hasn't heard of Pact before, or would like to get involved, what’s the best way they can support you?
You can start by visiting our website, and reading our news stories to learn more about us. If our work has resonated with you, please consider supporting us by making a donation. You can also keep up to date with our events programme
Alternatively, you could think about volunteering with us. Pact has more than 350 volunteers that support people at every stage of the criminal justice system across England and Wales, both in-person and remotely. Your skills and experiences could really change the course of someone’s life.
For more information on Pact please visit: https://www.prisonadvice.org.uk