Bishop of Rochester highlights needs of vulnerable women prisoners

17.10 RochesterOn 25th July 2019 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Farmer (Con) that the House “takes note of the needs of women in the criminal justice system”. The Bishop of Rochester contributed to the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, for obtaining this debate and for his unstinting efforts in this area, not least the welcome emphasis in his most recent report on relationships, which he expounded so clearly when introducing this debate.

I am sorry that the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Gloucester and the Bishop of Newcastle are not in their places today, because they both take a very close and informed interest in the issues around women in the criminal justice system. However, I have visited a good number of women’s prisons over the last few years and, in making those visits, I have been both shocked and inspired.

I have been shocked, saddened and disturbed, as I have met some of the most vulnerable and damaged people that I have ever encountered in our society: women who have been “done to”, usually by men, often from their earliest days and, in some cases, from before their births. As many studies show, and the noble Lord’s reports build on them, issues which we find in the wider prison population—poor mental and physical health, self-harm, addiction, being victims of abuse and violence—are writ large among women in the criminal justice system. These women are often convicted of crimes committed on behalf of another, usually a man, such as theft to support a partner’s drug-taking or prostitution, where a male pimp takes the money and the woman takes the risk, often out of desperation, and then takes the punishment.

I have been shocked and saddened, in many respects, but also inspired sometimes by the sheer fortitude and resilience of some of the women I have met and their determination, despite everything, to turn things around. I recall one woman, whom I met in HMP Styal. We participated in a filmed piece of research by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, which I think is still available on YouTube. She was preparing for release after a lifetime of considerable difficulties. She had reached the stage where she was going out each day to work for a charity in one of our larger cities, thereby herself supporting other vulnerable people. She had, with considerable determination and a lot of support, turned her life around, and I found that inspiring.

I have also been inspired by some of the staff, and their commitment and passion for the work in which they are engaged, in our women’s prisons and in some of the community initiatives. I recall, on a visit to HMP Eastwood Park, meeting a male prison officer, probably in his 50s, and having the opportunity to talk to him about his role. He spoke to me about the delicacy of maintaining proper boundaries between himself and the female prisoners for whom he cared. He observed that, for some of those women, the relationship that they had with him was probably the first adult to adult relationship they had ever had with a man that was not abusive. The opportunity that he had, as a man in that setting, to try and set a different pattern, I found quietly inspirational.

I am also inspired by the efforts of our voluntary sector organisations—many of them faith-based—often working with and alongside the chaplaincies in our prisons. If the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester were here, she would draw our attention to the work of the Nelson Trust women’s centre in Gloucester, and there are many others like it. As has been alluded to in the various reports, there are funding issues around women’s centres and the aspiration to see the formation of residential women’s centres. I applaud any efforts to move us in those directions. Those kinds of interventions are both effective and cost-effective, and the place of the voluntary sector within that world is an important one.

I want to pick up on one thing which the noble Lord spoke about in his opening comments. One of the key factors in helping all prisoners to turn away from crime is security of accommodation on release. It is a scandal that some 40% of women released from prison are released to no fixed abode. That was the figure in the independent monitoring board’s report last year into HMP Bronzefield—no wonder so many reoffend within a year of release. It may be anecdotal that charities are providing women with sleeping bags upon release, but it is true; I have seen it. As a member of our society and our nation, I am ashamed by that.

This week, I heard about a small charity, the Imago Dei Prison Ministry, working mainly with women prisoners in the south-east, where the housing issues are sometimes the most acute. This tiny charity is seeking to raise funds to buy a 12-bed house for women leaving prison, where they will have not only a roof over their heads but also continued training and support towards employment and independent living. It is a tiny initiative but an example of what needs to be happening across the country to meet the needs of women leaving our prisons. Surely it is not beyond the capacity of our society in the 21st century—given the relatively small numbers of women leaving custody—to ensure that these kinds of housing provisions are in place. The right reverent Prelates the Bishop of Gloucester and the Bishop of Newcastle are hosting a seminar in this place on 15 October around these issues. I dearly hope that some good initiatives will come out of it, and out of other thinking in this area.

Earlier in your Lordships’ House, people were offering their good wishes to Mr Johnson and his new Government. I join them in doing so, but I recall it being said that a society is often judged by how it treats the most vulnerable in its midst. Here is an opportunity for Her Majesty’s Government, and all of us in civil society, to do what we must to ensure that the judgment on us is a positive one.

Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD): [extract] … I agree with the comments of many noble Lords, including those of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester that families lie at the root of so much of our behaviour. It seems there is, very often, a repeating cycle of abuse, addiction and crime. …

Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab): [extract] … Discrimination in our world, even in 21st-century Britain, is much deeper, subtler and more endemic than that.

I felt that this understanding was very much present in so many of your Lordships’ speeches, including those from my noble friends Lord Parekh and Lady Uddin, the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and, predictably, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf.

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con): [extract] … The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester touched on accommodation and security of accommodation on release. That is critically important. At present, the CRCs and the National Probation Service are required to facilitate access to accommodation and work with other partners to do that when offenders are released. Over and above that, I mention in passing that the Government introduced our Rough Sleeping Strategy in August last year, which again we hope will alleviate those demands. …


%d bloggers like this: