A CHARITY is to launch the first prison visits transport service in the North-East in an effort to ensure inmates maintain contact with their families and loved ones while serving their sentence.

The North East Prison After Care Society (Nepacs) will introduce the service between Darlington and Deerbolt Young Offenders' Institution at Startforth, near Barnard Castle, on Saturday, April 26.

A second service, from Newcastle to HMP Northumberland, at Acklington, will start from April 29 and a third, between Teesside and HMP Northumberland will be introduced in May.

The pilot scheme is being launched after prison visitor surveys and other research carried out by the charity highlighted the difficulty some relatives encountered in visiting inmates.

Nepacs officials also point to a Ministry of Justice study which states prisoners are 39 per cent less likely to reoffend if they receive visits throughout their time inside.

Andrew Thorp, Nepacs transport solutions worker, said it was hoped the new service would encourage families to start making contact with inmates or increase the frequency of visits.

“A lot of people live far away, are not from the region and don't know the public transport system,” he said.

“Some public services do not fit in with visitor times and this leaves some families with really long journey times.”

In the case of Deerbolt YOI, the Nepacs service will operate on a Thursday, Saturday and Sunday to coincide with visitor centre opening times, with pick-up points at Darlington train station and in the town centre.

Mr Thorp said people wishing to use the service would be able to book a seat on the minibus in advance of their visit.

The new transport service is part of a range of help offered by Nepacs for the friends and families of inmates at seven prisons across the North-East.

The charity runs visitor centres and tea bars, offers play sessions for inmates' children, family support and support in Middlesbrough courts.

Nepacs is appealing for volunteer drivers in Darlington and Tyne and Wear to help operate the service. Those interested must be aged 21-70 and must have driven for two years.

Volunteers will be offered professional minibus driving training.

For details, contact Mr Thorp on 07854 594012 or email athorp@nepacs.co.uk