How to ‘set the prisoners free’

By Joy Doal

(a winner of the 2018 Robin Corbett Award)

Many of us are familiar with the biblical passage, and perhaps even the hymn, encouraging us to “set the prisoners free”. While this phrase is not to be taken literally, the situation in England and Wales stands in sharp contrast with the spirit of this image.


With prisoners spending up to 22 hours isolated in their cells, riots, and a nearly 50 per cent reoffending rate, prisons are both at their fullest and their weakest.


The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales is about to release a report, A Journey of Hope: A Catholic Approach to Sentencing Reform, in which it recommends an overhaul of sentencing. There are more than 250 Catholic prison chaplains who serve the prisoners of England and Wales. Time and again they report seeing the same people pass through the system; a system that is failing to rehabilitate them. That is why they are calling for change.


As a director of Anawim, a Birmingham-based service for vulnerable women, I too see a system that is failing people. Anawim is an Aramaic word meaning the poorest, the outcast and the persecuted, and these are exactly the types of women that the centre serves. The centre was founded by a group of nuns, some of whom still work in the community, such as Sister Edna. “We started in 1986, while it was still an area for prostitution,” she says. “We walked the streets. We went out as friends and struck up relationships with the women.”


Women are being failed doubly by our approach to sentencing. The use of short sentences for non-violent crimes are incredibly damaging for women who end up in custody as well as for those around them. Sentences as short as three months are enough to create irreversible damage to their lives. Often, time spent in prison will mean that a woman will lose her house and her children. After release, to survive on the outside, a woman may have to sell herself or become involved in criminal groups. She becomes trapped in a vicious cycle.


Longer, indefinite sentences are equally damaging. Prison “sisterhoods” have been glamorised on television, but the bonds that women make on the inside are often binding. The outside is an isolating place. Probation services and supported housing should be a means of bridging this gap. However, in reality, these spaces are still fuelled by prisoner mentality and create a never-ending cycle of offending.


Long sentences also damage mental health for men and women. Regaining human connections is particularly difficult. Ex-prisoners often become dependent on drugs, alcohol, and violence, but also enter damaging relationships. We see this in survivors of domestic abuse: one or both partners are released from prison, one partner becomes abusive and is imprisoned, while the other is then dependent on someone or something for survival.


Each year thousands of children are sentenced to a life without parents. The vast majority of children are removed from their parents and home after sentencing, regardless of the crime. On average, a mother is imprisoned at least 60 miles from her child. The child is removed from their mother’s care immediately. This is followed by their home, their school, and the support networks around them.


The Re-Unite project works with children scarred from parental imprisonment. Two teenage sisters who had been moved away from their mother said, “[Mum] mustn’t think we don’t love her — if we don’t keep in touch, she will think we don’t love her and she will harm herself again”.


So often we sit in court with the women that come to us. Judges hand out sentences under the premise that “there is no other option”, “you will be safer inside”, and “there is nothing else that we can do with you”.


It is true that other options are limited. The lack of community sentencing opportunities makes community-based rehabilitation almost an impossibility. At Anawim, we take this as a truly sad indictment on the capabilities of our community. The average rate of reoffending among women is 48 per cent. Of the hundreds of women that pass through our door only 3 per cent end up back in prison. There is something about the presence of the religious sisters that we find unique. The women that come to us often ask the sisters to pray for them, feeling some kind of connection in the sisterhood. No woman is judged at Anawim. She is never asked why. She comes here and she is accepted for who she is. If a woman, or any person, feels respected, they can respond to and grow from that.


The best alternative to a life of crime is an alternative to custody. Our prisons are full and our capacity to help is minimal. It is not simply a case of saving money, but of reinvesting in a way that benefits society. We at Anawim hope that A Journey of Hope will challenge leaders to establish a criminal justice system that is rehabilitative, without being soft.


As Pope Francis said to female prisoners in Chile: “We are all people, and as people, we have a dimension of hope.”


Joy Doal is chief executive of Anawim


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