The Rt Rev Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester and Bishop for the Female Estate, speaks to PF’s Fiona Koefoed-Jespersen about her passion for serving women in the criminal justice system.
On my announcement day as Bishop of Gloucester, I visited HMP Eastwood Park—a women’s prison— because I wanted to say something about becoming a bishop not being about the “good and the great”. My great passion is that we are all equal, we are all called by God by name, we are all different, and we all have a different role to play.
I was the first female Diocesan Bishop, and there was something for me about saying, how can I use my voice for women? Another passion of mine is girls, and how girls can discover who they are called to be and really flourish. The women in Women’s Centres and in prison, they haven’t flourished. Something has gone wrong in their story, and I long to go back to when they were girls, when their story started.
Half the women in prison shouldn’t be there. We know that roughly 70% of women in prison have experienced abuse themselves—child sexual abuse or domestic abuse—and there is a very strong pattern of women being caught up in unhealthy relationships.
62% of women in the Criminal Justice System are on a prison sentence of six months or less, and there is that revolving door—women keep going back into prison for non-violent crimes like shoplifting, even for not paying their television license!
Well, that is crazy! And so many women caught up with addiction—but where has that come from?
We know that many get into drug addiction through a partner. Many women end up taking the brunt for a partner’s offence. That’s not to condone what they have done, but the issue for me is that we’re not dealing with the problem by sending them to prison, especially for short sentences, because you can’t work with someone for that short time. So ironically, I sometimes hear women in prison say, “this is the best thing that has happened to me,” because it was a long enough sentence to get to grips with their issues. But could that have been dealt with in the community?
We need that trauma-informed approach, which says, let’s look at your story and what has happened to you. Women’s Centres really allow that to happen. A woman can look at her trauma, her abuse, she can look at her anger, her poor self-esteem, her parenting.
That’s not a soft option. Most women will say that is much harder than going to prison for eight weeks, because you are asking them to look at the deep things within them.
For me, justice sits at the heart of God’s love. A loving parent doesn’t turn a blind eye to their child’s wrong behaviour, there are consequences for that. And I believe in a God who wipes the slate clean. So I always want to say, if a woman gets labelled as a criminal, a bad person, we are not living the justice of God.
We should be passionate about prisons and those who go to prison, because it speaks to who we believe God is. No one is beyond hope—that is at the core of the Gospel.
Often the women I meet in prison have lost faith in themselves. They have a very low opinion of themselves. They only know themselves as a bad person, or as someone who is not worth loving. I long for those women to be in right relationship with God, with others, and all creation. So often, loving themselves is where it has all gone wrong, because they haven’t received God’s love.
One of my frustrations has been how the Church could support those who come out of prison or who are risk of going to prison. One of our clergy houses in the diocese wasn’t needed as a clergy house, and it was agreed it could be used to reunite women with their children when they come out of prison. That’s a drop in the ocean and I wish we had ten of those.
Earlier in the Covid-19 crisis, when they were talking of letting some women out early, I would have loved to be able to really confidently say to the government, “their local church will take care of them, will mentor them, will walk alongside them, will ensure they don’t reoffend”. My vision is that the Church could reflect this heart of God in how we support that restoration, mend that brokenness. It shouldn’t become a specialist interest for the few—if we are the Church then we have to do this.
For me hope comes when I see those seeds of change, especially when it comes from within someone, when someone voices it for themselves. Like last week, when I was hearing stories from women at a Women’s Centre—stories of how they were managing to reconnect with their children, recover from their addiction, find work. Or when I’m in prison, and I talk to a woman who wants to live differently. For me, that’s a sign that women believe things can be different. You are seeing transformation in their lives.
A very powerful image for me is the story of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. For me, that was about wholeness, she is made well. The transformation is in the reaching out, and where I see hope is in that reaching out.
To volunteers in prison, I want to start by saying Thank You. When a volunteer goes in they are saying something very important, just by being there. You are absolutely embodying the message, “you are valuable”, just by turning up.
If ever you wake up doubting if you are doing anything useful, you really are. Every time you walk through those doors you are carrying the love of God in to that place. One of my favourite hymns is “Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.” One line says, “I will hold the Christ light for you in the night time of your fear”. As a volunteer, you are carrying that Christ light.
My work in the House of Lords asks, where does change need to come through legislation? I am very frustrated that we haven’t implemented the Female Offender Strategy from 2017. It looked like we were finally moving in the right direction, focusing on Women’s Centres and how we were supporting women at risk of going to prison. But it has been thrown off course by Brexit and Covid-19. I want to hold the government’s feet to the fire.
What one step could you take to aid that? I’d say, write to your MP to ask the question: “What are you doing to ensure that the Female Offender Strategy is implemented? To ensure that we halve the number of women in prison?” I think if everyone was to do that it would make a difference.
Pray for the work of Bishop Rachel both in prison and in the House of Lords. May God give her the courage, wisdom and compassion to speak with authority and grace for the transformation of many lives.
If you have been inspired by Bishop Rachel’s words to speak up for women in prison, read our article on how to contact your MP, and what to write!