Pauline retired at the end of May after 20 years of incredible service to Prisoners Abroad. She kindly shared some thoughts on her time as Chief Executive, reflecting on the key values of our founders, and how proud she is that those principles are still the ones that guide us today.

In 2003, I started working at Prisoners Abroad as its Chief Executive – a role that has provided me with an opportunity to learn so much and to apply the humanitarian beliefs that are so important to me.

After twenty years, I am now stepping back from this organisation, but it has been a privilege to work alongside some amazingly talented and caring people - staff, volunteers, trustees, and supporters - to do work that few people know about and even fewer care about.

On the face of it, we work with British people in prison abroad – but we do so much more too.

When our founders Chris Cheal, Craig Feehan and Joe Parham created the National Council for the Welfare of Prisoners Abroad back in 1978, they cared enormously about the emerging humanitarian plight of Britons imprisoned in Turkey and Morocco, who found themselves in appalling conditions.

The fight to create and maintain the organisation that became Prisoners Abroad, that would help people in a completely non-judgmental way, turned out to be insightful; if people can be offered a different way to live their lives, our experience is that they will take it. We advocate on behalf of people in prison whose ability to advocate for themselves is often lacking.

Many people have family and friends who stay in touch and care about what happens to them, but many have no one looking out for them; they feel isolated and forgotten. That’s why the work of Prisoners Abroad is so critical – we stay in touch and care.

For the people we support, the birthday card or Christmas card we send may be the most valuable gesture of humanity that is possible for someone in prison. We know this because people arrive at our resettlement unit from the airport clutching birthday cards signed by our staff team from years ago. When you have nothing else, this simple card signed by us, means absolutely everything.

I realise that Prisoners Abroad is uniquely positioned; we see the importance of humanitarian actions and human dignity; we see the vastly complex and varying criminal justice systems in 100 countries around the world; we see the cultural differences in countries’ approach to dealing with criminality, with some actions being criminal in one country and not in another; we see people in desperate need who can’t wait for a criminal justice process to prove them innocent as that might go on for years and they need help now.

I could have written these points 20 years ago because they were just as valid then as they are today. People have said that I must have seen a lot of change …. well, I have and I haven’t! Nothing has changed and yet everything has.

The demand for our support and services hasn’t gone away – there will always be people who commit crimes, be that intentionally or those who find themselves caught up in a situation there seems no way out of.

But the thread that runs through all our work is our core value of providing a service in a non-judgmental way.

Patterns of offending around the world change alongside political regimes, so we are constantly adapting to the issues and needs this raises for Britons detained overseas.

In the mid-2000s, the drug routes from South America meant large numbers of people were detained in Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. Thailand decided to deport tourists who had overstayed their visas, and the number of women used as drug mules and needing our support for smuggling offences in the Caribbean was at an all-time high.

In 2016, we saw the first of the deportees from Australia after serving long sentences and with no connections left in the UK. Even before Brexit, we saw the mass migration of people across Europe and the increase in people smuggling. Prisoners Abroad sees the individual impact of these moments in human history.

Alongside the situation for the person detained, the ‘fall out’ very often includes family members – from spouses to parents, siblings and children. The news of your loved one being detained abroad is devastating and debilitating. It brings with it a cloak of loneliness and social isolation, confusion, slow and unclear communication, sometimes great financial expense and even worse, the bullying and intimidation often experienced by prisoners can reach outside prisons to their families too.

These are all things that this small British charity cannot change, but it can inform, communicate and emotionally support people going through it.

We do so much more which is often hidden from plain sight – at all times, we try to support prisoners and families as holistically as possible by providing for their needs from the beginning of the imprisonment to release and then return. In supporting this organisation, we are all saving lives.

There is still, of course, so much work to do - our services are needed day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out. But I want to sign off by paying tribute to the founders of Prisoners Abroad – Chris, Craig and Joe. It is immensely sad that none of them are here today to see what all their efforts have achieved – the numbers of people who have been helped, the lives that have been affected positively, the opportunities that have been given and taken, the doors into new beginnings that have been opened.

It takes a great deal of coordinated effort to make an organisation like this work effectively – but Craig, Joe and Chris would recognise the non-judgmental and humanitarian values that guide everything we do today as they are the ones they used almost 45 years ago.

I hope that in another 20 years, they will still be the foundation stones that this great organisation is built upon.

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?