Mary is in year eight and causing trouble at school. She often truants and has run away from home three times this term, which also means she misses school. She has few female peers and is often bullied for her unkempt state and her notorious mother.
Mary is in year 10. She has been in local authority care for six months now after her mother’s ‘boyfriend’ was found to be pimping her out. She has struggled to engage with the Pupil Referral Unit she now attends in place of mainstream school, but is on the verge of being excluded from here due to her violent outbursts and being caught drunk in school time and for trading prescription medication.
Mary is 18. Her erratic behaviour and drug use mean she has been unable to secure housing. She earns money from street prostitution and spends most of that on crack. She has had a child who is currently in local authority care, pending adoption. She has an on/off boyfriend who has a flat that he deals drugs from, that she sometimes stays in. One night, he isn’t there, some of his friends are round and they violently gang rape her. She doesn’t tell her boyfriend and she certainly doesn’t tell the police. A few weeks later she has morning sickness. When she tells her boyfriend she thinks she might be pregnant, he beats her up for being careless while sex working: he wants a paternity test. The next day she goes out on a run to deliver some drugs for him – it’s a set-up, the police are there and they take her into custody.
What should happen next? Prison? Therapy? Rehab? Refuge?
What could’ve happened in year eight or year 10?
What’s this got to do with the Church? What’s this got to do with me?
Mary is typical of the women who fill our prisons. In 2007 Baroness Corston wrote a seminal report on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system (CJS), following six suicides in one year at HMP Styal women’s prison. This week the Justice Select Committee issued a report Women Offenders: After the Corston Report looking at the progress made in the last five years. The report welcomes the appointment of a ministerial champion for women in the CJS, but raises grave concerns around the stagnation and possible backsliding of the Corston report recommendations and the slowness of reducing the numbers of women in prison.
With regard to the proposed probation shake-up – Transforming Rehabilitation – (that will see all but work privatised with all but the most high-risk people leaving prison), concerns were raised that nothing in the original document specifically addressed the needs of women. This isn’t about special treatment for women: it’s about recognising that they constitute just five per cent of our custodial estate, 80 per cent are imprisoned for non-violent crime and that they have different pathways into and out of crime; meaning their imprisonment and (re)habilitation needs to look different if we want to see less crimes and fewer victims of crime. Crime stats are down generally but the incidence of those with 15 or more offences is up – suggesting that prison does not work.
The original Corston Report identified three areas of vulnerability that were particularly pertinent to women who offend: domestic circumstances and problems such as domestic violence, childcare issues, being a single parent; personal circumstances such as mental illness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance misuse; socio-economic factors such as poverty, isolation and employment.
So the solution lies not only with the individual but the society in which the individual lives. What’s the story behind these circumstances that are indicators of a propensity to commit crime? In certain sectors of our society, there is a prevalence of mental illness, domestic violence, substance misuse and joblessness: why is that? If I am born HERE (fill in notorious area of your choice) and not HERE (say, the home secretary’s constituency of Maidenhead where I grew up) how likely does that make me to come into contact with the above list of criminogenic factors? Obviously not everyone who has a troubled childhood goes on to commit crimes and of course, we are responsible for our own actions. But the whole system currently deals with change in the individual when it’s imperative that we also acknowledge the impact of growing up in a part of the UK where no one you know has a job, where the care system raised you and all your relationships have been characterised by abuse of one kind or another – and ask how we can change this too.
It’s hard for us to think like this in 2013 in the UK because these are the prevalent narratives of our society – atomise, individualise, silo, segregate. There is no such thing as society. It is your problem. Your personal, individual problem, a problem that can be fixed by the same thinking that created it. It’s a thinking that took the Church by storm in the 70s, 80s and 90s. My personal holiness, my walk with the Lord, my personal sinandshame. These things obviously need attention and grappling with; Jesus treats us as individuals, tenderly restoring us.
But here’s the thing: that isn’t at the expense of thinking about the big picture, about structural injustice and the unholiness of particular institutions. God’s kingdom is one of dynamic love, that makes ALL things new. God’s kingdom involves other people: the trinity is relational, we are made for relationship with God and each other. We aren’t doing this gig solo, so our holiness has to be about us corporately, the world we live in and not just us individually. The kingdom is those who others reject (woman with issue of blood, various lepers and those begging), it’s healing supported by relationships (man lowered through roof by friends), it’s witnessing miracles corporately (feeding of 5,000), it’s welcoming everyone to the party (parable of the great banquet). It asks: “who is my neighbour?” and offers a radical answer (Good Samaritan). The kingdom makes all things new.
Let your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The people said “Amen!”…
… (and then the people got off their backsides and started kicking the darkness into touch. Blazing with light, love and life, they began to dismantle structures that allowed poverty, sickness, addiction and joblessness to flourish. The Kingdom is coming…)
 Maureen Mansfield, Women in Prison