From the Director of the Catholic Agency for Social Concern Sir, Thank you for Jack O'Sullivan's article on the plight of imprisoned women and their babies. The Catholic Agency for Social Concern has for some time been concerned about the many problems faced by women in prison in England and Wales, and by their children, and indeed is hoping to produce a report on women and prison shortly. Readers of The Catholic Herald may be interested to know that the majority of imprisoned women are serving sentences for non-violent offices, and most have no or few previous convictions. Home Office evidence suggests that over 60% of imprisoned women in England and Wales are mothers of children under 18. In addition, the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons' Thematic Survey on women in prison, published in 1997, noted that: 30% of the women reported having had serious problems at school.
20% of the women said they had experienced time in care.
Nearly half the women said they had been abused, either physically or sexually,or both 40% of the women reported heavy drug use or addiction.
Jack O'Sullivan points out that Mother and Baby Units in prisons enable women to remain with their children only until the baby reaches 18 months: thereafter, mother and child face separation. Given that women in prison — unlike male prisoners — are in most cases the primary carers of their children, such separation causes considerable anguish, Roger Shaw, writing in 1992, posed the question: "Does the state have a right morally — as practice shows it has legally — to strip a child of its parents because the parent has offended, although the crime may have been less harmful to the victim than imprisonment of the offender is to his or her child?"
Given the dramatic rise since 1922 in the number of women receiving prison sentences, we suggest that this question remains as pertinent today both for Catholics and for all concerned with criminal justice issues.
Yours faithfully, ANN FORBES London SW1 Director, Catholic Agency for Social Concern