By Christopher Stacey

As we approach the end of 2023 and head into the festive season, it’s a good time to reflect on the last six months or so since I became the chief executive of Prisoners Abroad.

The importance of our partners and supporters

I want to say an enormous thank you to all our partners and supporters who I have had the pleasure of meeting over the last six months. When I think about my conversations with supporters, they are characterised by one overriding thread - the warmth, kindness and compassion that is channelled through this unique charity to provide life-saving welfare support for people who would otherwise risk being forgotten.  

Before I joined Prisoners Abroad, I had never needed to be in contact with the consular service. Indeed, it’s one of those things that you hope you never need. But I have certainly discovered one of the hidden treasures within government. At a time of budget cuts and reduced resources, it’s important that we recognise the consular service for the help and support they provide to British people in prisons overseas, and to acknowledge the effective partnership that exists between the consular service and Prisoners Abroad.

Through our longstanding work with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), together we make our collective experience and professionalism count, and we have a shared understanding of the issues that British people face in prison overseas, ensuring that our life support services reach the people who are so desperately in need of them around the world and here in the UK.

The importance of our work

Prisoners Abroad is the only charity providing humanitarian support to British citizens detained overseas. Our support is compassionate and not dependent on whether people are guilty or innocent. It is support that meets basic human rights and avoids people becoming totally isolated and destitute.

People in prison are amongst the most vulnerable to human rights abuses, and the partnership we have with the FCDO and the consular service enables us to identify and support people suffering mistreatment, investigating torture allegations as well as ensuring British citizens get the essentials that they are entitled to under international law. People continue to be held in awful prison conditions around the world, where food is difficult to get and is lacking in reasonable nutrition, water is contaminated by birds and rats, medical facilities don’t exist, and there are no medical supplies.

People returning to the UK at the end of their sentence arrive without money and identification, only have the clothes they stand in and often have little experience of the digital world they find themselves in. They are hungry and overwhelmed by the stress of arriving in a country where they know no one and filled with fear at being homeless in a place they don’t know and often don’t want to be. They need a kind and non-judgmental person who has time to speak to them about their questions and anxieties, and who will guide them through the labyrinth of uncertainty.

Then there are the people who are left behind - the family and the friends. We know that families also suffer a level of isolation, exclusion, stigma, and pressure that is hard to imagine for those of us who haven’t experienced it. The shock of hearing about the arrest of a loved one, the trauma of the sentence, worrying about the conditions their relative is being held in, as well as the physical distance without contact, and the language barriers, all have a huge impact on peoples’ lives. They are the hidden victims.  They are the ones that need the third element of our support - tailored information and advice via a helpline and a national network of support groups and information days. Prisoners Abroad is there to support families throughout their loved one’s sentence – often for many, many years.

The number of people we supported in 22-23 saw a gradual increase during the year and we expect numbers to continue to rise. It takes an enormous effort to raise the funds we need to keep the charity doing what we’re currently doing. We are operating in one of the toughest financial and fundraising landscapes the voluntary sector has seen. In the last year we are pleased to have significantly reduced our deficit, and with plans to grow our income, we are on track to achieve a break-even budget this financial year.

Our current organisational strategy has the central aim of ensuring our service users are at the heart of what we do, continuing to build on our community of support. You are all an integral part of that community, and by working together we can all make a positive difference to peoples’ lives and futures.

Looking ahead

A key focus for the year ahead will be developing our plans for the future. I am ambitious for the charity and ultimately for our service users. This is more important now because not only do we need to continue to safeguard the vital support that we provide, but we also need to build on our strengths, broaden our reach and deepen our services to support and advocate for the people we exist for.  

Our vision is of a world where there is an end to the inhumane and degrading treatment of British people detained in prisons overseas. So, what can we do with this in mind? I’d like to share three areas that will hopefully give you a sense of our direction of travel.

We want to make sure that every British citizen in prison overseas knows about us, understands what we can offer, and is able to access our support both during their time in prison and when they are released, no matter where they are. We want the same for their families too.

We can aim to deepen our support where it’s needed. Our survival grants, known as the Craig Feehan Fund and named after one of our founders, are sent to people in prisons in developing countries so that they can purchase food and water. We know that sometimes these grants don’t cover all that is needed in prisons where absolutely everything must be paid for, so, if we can widen our funding avenues we can ensure that every person not only has access to the essentials they need to survive, but has support beyond that; to look after their mental health and maintain a sense of dignity needed to look towards the future with hope.

We can listen carefully to the issues and challenges people are facing, collect evidence, and advocate for changes in policies and practices – from safeguarding those who are subject to inhumane and degrading treatment, joining the conversation around repatriation to strengthen family ties and increase the chances of a successful resettlement on release from prison in the UK rather than overseas, and ensuring local authorities are placing people in suitable accommodation when they are deported at the end of their sentence.

Through our work, we have knowledge and expertise to support the work of government, policy makers and others. Our recent publication, the Cheal report, shows how we are in a unique position to understand the needs and challenges of people imprisoned overseas.

Thank you if you are reading this as an existing supporter of our work. If you aren’t yet a member of our community, I hope you might consider joining us to make a real difference to people’s lives.

On behalf of all of us here at Prisoners Abroad, I would like to wish you and yours a wonderful festive period and a happy and safe new year.  

 Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

Can you help to support our life-saving work by donating today?