Bishop of Gloucester Times article: Women’s centres give non‑violent offenders a chance for success

The following article by the Bishop of Gloucester appeared on The Times Red Box website on 12th September 2018:

Perhaps for most of us it has simply been a case of out of sight, out of mind. But do we ever stop to ask ourselves why there are so many women in prison.

Last year, more than eight in 10 women sent to prison had committed a non-violent crime and more than six in 10 of them were serving a sentence of six months or less.

There are about 4,000 women in jail in England and Wales today. That means that more than 17,000 children are affected and only one in 20 of those children will be able to stay in the family home.

Far from prison providing an opportunity for women to address their issues, it either exacerbates existing challenges, particularly with mental health or drug abuse, or creates new problems.

This is why there needs to be a focus and significant investment in women’s centres.

The Ministry of Justice’s own research shows that women’s centres are more effective than prisons at reducing reoffending. They’re also much cheaper: it costs approximately £47,000 a year to keep a woman in prison, yet women’s centres can work effectively with only £4,000 per year per woman.

Yet the government hasn’t committed to building a network of women’s centres, they’re investing only £5 million into five two-year pilots. In contrast, last year the government spent more than £170 million operating twelve female prisons.

In my own diocese of Gloucester I am fortunate to have an outstanding women’s centre, run by the Nelson Trust. The work the Nelson Trust does is remarkable. They do things with women rather than to them, and provide an opportunity for women in difficult circumstances to transform their situation.

Research shows that the majority of women offenders have experienced some sort of abuse, whether from a partner or a family member.

According to the excellent organisation Women in Prison, 53 per cent of women in prison have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood; 46 per cent report suffering domestic abuse violence; and over 30 per cent spent time in local authority care as a child.

Properly resourced women’s centres can provide women with a holistic trauma-informed approach of rehabilitation. It’s not simply about tackling the presenting offending — the what — but an approach that focusses on the why. Caseworkers in a place of relationship, focus on getting to the heart of the woman’s story in order to address what are often complex needs.

As a Christian I believe that our humanity and flourishing is rooted in relationship. Where healing and rehabilitation take place it comes from a place of trust in relationship. To that end, prison is rarely the most appropriate or effective place for these issues to be addressed.

Following on from the tireless work done by Baroness Corston, this is why I am leading a debate in the House of Lords calling for a change to the way women are sentenced and asking for consideration of community based orders and rehabilitation for women with less serious offences.

Women in the justice system must be given a true chance to succeed, and for many the best opportunity for success comes at a women’s centre.

Rachel Treweek is the Bishop of Gloucester