Dozens of prisons across England and Wales are failing to operate emergency telephone lines to help prevent suicide and self-harm, a report has revealed.
The research shows a hotline for relatives of prisoners to call if they have concerns about an inmate was not being answered or had not even been set up in more than one third of jails.
When there was an emergency line, most calls went to an answering machine.
The Ministry of Justice said the findings were "unacceptable".
In a statement, the MoJ pledged "immediate action" to address the problem and asked prisons to ensure that it is sorted out within the next 24 hours.
The availability of a dedicated "safer custody" telephone line for families to flag concerns about a prisoner's physical or mental health was a key recommendation in a review by Lord Michael Farmer which had been commissioned by the government.
The review was published in 2017 amid mounting concern about the rising tide of self-harm and suicides in prisons.
Figures from the Ministry of Justice for the 12 months to September 2019 show there were 90 self-inflicted deaths, one more than the previous year, and in the 12 months to June, 60,594 incidents of self-harm - an increase of 22%.
'Lives may depend on it'
The Prison Reform Trust (PRT), together with the Prison Advice and Care Trust and the charity Inquest, conducted research by trying to call 119 jails to test whether Lord Farmer's proposal had been implemented.
The research, seen by the BBC, found that:
- 22 prisons had no publicly advertised hotline
- In another 22, the number was not answered, was not working or was just transferred through to a general switchboard.
- Of the 75 numbers that were directed to safer custody departments, 62 went through to an answerphone - and only 13 calls were immediately picked up by a member of staff.
Peter Dawson, director of the PRT, said: "Lord Farmer's report demanded action, and the Prison Service promised it, but this report shows that the problem is a very long way from being solved."
The PRT said poor arrangements for families to get in touch with prisons had been identified in inquests into the deaths of prisoners, including that of Jordan Hullock.
The 19-year-old died of natural causes at Doncaster Prison in 2015 but an inquest jury identified serious failures and shortcomings in his care.
According to the PRT, the inquest heard evidence that "when Jordan stopped communicating, his mother emailed and phoned the prison with her concerns, but to no avail".
Mr Dawson said: "Lives may depend on the ability to get an urgent message through - every prison should have a system in place and be testing it regularly."
'Never rung me back'
In another case, one family member told researchers they had contacted the safer custody line in a prison 20-25 times between January and June this year.
"About 40% of the time someone picks up and says that they will check on him and then ring me back…but they have never rung me back," the relative said.
"On one occasion I left a message four times before they rang me back."
The Ministry of Justice said: "The findings of this report are unacceptable and we have already taken immediate action to address the concerns, with governors ensuring that family members are able to speak to staff if they have information about a prisoner's wellbeing."
The department has asked senior managers to give a personal guarantee that "effective communications systems" are in place within each prison - and, to underline the urgency, have asked for this to be done by the end of the day.
The study comes as a separate report by the Commons Justice Committee said the prison system is in an "enduring crisis of safety and decency".
MPs criticised announcements about building new prison places to accommodate tougher sentences.
"Too often we have seen what might be called 'policy by press notice' without a clear vision for the future of the prison system," the report said.
"While new prison places are welcome, they do nothing to improve the condition of the current prison estate, much of which is in an appalling state of disrepair," it adds.