Dr Gemma Simmonds CJ, gave the annual Sir Harold Hood Memorial Lecture 2015 Tuesday 17 November, in the Metropolitan Cathedral Church of St George, Amigo Hall.
My career in prison chaplaincy began over twenty years ago following a random meeting in Rio de Janeiro with Ronnie Biggs. That in itself is a story worth hearing, but probably not for today. I took up voluntary work in the education department at Holloway Prison on my return from Brazil, and the fallout from my encounter with the Great Train Robber led me by obscure paths to the chaplaincy.
My reflections today are based on what I have learned both from the women whom I have accompanied in various ways as a chaplaincy volunteer, and from the wise and powerful ministries of the two Catholic chaplains under whom I have worked, Sisters Mary Galvin of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, and Kathleen Diamond of the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Baroness Helena Kennedy, in her landmark study of women in prison, famously wrote that Eve Was Framed. (1)
I don't believe it precisely true that the prisoners to whom I have ministered were framed, but over the years, both through personal experience and by studying the work of organizations such as the Fawcett Society, Women in Prison, Eaves and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, I have come to believe that many of them should never have been in prison, and that their imprisonment has often had more to do with the way in which society perceives socially or psychologically delinquent women than with crime per se.
It also has to do with the relative value placed on women, especially poor women within society. Theological thinking and the use of biblical and other theological resources have historically permeated attitudes to women and to the sins of women, relative to those of men within our culture. Even now, with secularism rampant, and among organizations who deny any links with religious affiliation, the residual biases of that religious hinterland are still detectable. I have come to see how important
considerations of gender are for an understanding of the dynamics of condemnation, punishment and forgiveness, in the light of experience but also based on the theology of sin and forgiveness and the spiritual path to repentance and conversion of life mapped out in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.
I hope to make sense of all of this amid an inevitable welter of statistics.
Chris Tchaikovsky, former prisoner and founder of Women in Prison wrote, 'Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.' (2)
Baroness Corston, in her report of 2007, notes that many women within the criminal justice system have personal histories of trauma, poverty and crisis. Echoing a previous report by Baroness Scotland she cites as dominant factors within their circumstances: domestic violence, child-care issues and being a single parent. When these issues are combined with mental illness, including eating disorders, with low self-esteem and substance misuse together with poverty, under-employment and social isolation they frequently result in behaviour that lands women in prison. Corston argues for a woman-centred approach both to offenders and those at risk of offending and an extension of all the networks that work in support of women. (3)
It could strongly be argued that the Catholic church is or should be such a network. The existence of organizations such as the Prison Advice and Care Trust (PACT), RENATE or Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation and the National Board of Catholic Women makes clear the commitment of individual Catholics and groups of Catholics to working in support of women within church and society. There is a body of modern and not so modern theology which clearly implies that patriarchy and chauvinism are both sinful and damaging to men as much as to women.
In his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II states, 'When we read in the biblical description the words addressed to the woman: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gen 3:16), we discover a break and a constant threat precisely in regard to this "unity of the two" which corresponds to the dignity of the image and likeness of God in both of them. But this threat is more serious for the woman, since domination takes the place of "being a sincere gift" and therefore living "for" the other [...] This "domination" [...] is especially to the disadvantage of the woman [...] While the violation of this equality, which is both a gift and a right deriving from God the Creator, involves an element to the disadvantage of the woman, at the same time it also diminishes the true dignity of the man'. (4)