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Give them a chance of new life

 "LOOK: I got some photos of my children today. Can you give me something to make a frame out of? I don't want them to get spoilt - I'm only allowed to get photos and letters once a year." The children are beautiful: she looks at the photos tenderly, and says: "I gave them up because it was the best thing to do."

She's young; too young to have children the age of those in the photos. A drug habit has led her into prostitution and theft; she's been in and out of our prison four or five times in the 18 months I've been working here.

About 60 per cent of women in prison have children under 16, and more than a third have a child under five. In reception interviews, the question I find most painful to ask is: "Where are your children?" Often, the woman will cry as she explains who is looking after them, or that they have been taken into care.

When women come into prison, access to children is one of their biggest problems. Too often, male partners are tardy at bringing the children to visit; yet we watch the queues of women with pushchairs faithfully visiting at the men 's prison next door. As Mothering Sunday dawns over HMP Brockhill, we will be trying to hold a church service that makes sense of their reality, and doesn't rub salt into their raw wounds.

There are 16 women's prisons in England, compared with 126 men's prisons in England and Wales. Many women are placed great distances away from their families while in custody, which makes visits difficult.

Most women prisoners are young: only 16 per cent are over 40. More than half have experienced domestic abuse; one in three have experienced sexual abuse; and about a quarter have been in local-authority care during their childhood. More than 90 per cent of the women who come into Brockhill are de-toxing from drugs. Two-thirds of women prisoners have some form of mental illness.

Women tend to commit less serious crimes than men, and offend less frequently; some have "revolving-door syndrome", and return frequently for short sentences  - usually for shoplifting. The returns are partly due to drug addiction, but also to lack of support on the outside.

I asked one woman who was about to be released where she would be staying: "Oh, I've got a pitch in the door of St Peter's Church," she told me. When she saw I was concerned, she quickly responded: "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine!"

That night, it poured with rain, and the wind was almost gale-force. I thought of her in her sleeping bag in that church door - and all I could do was pray. In Wolverhampton, there is only one women's hostel.

IN 2003, it is reported that 30 per cent of women in prison harmed themselves - compared with six per cent of men. Our officers and health-care staff are constantly dealing with women who have cut themselves, attempted to ligature, swallowed razor blades, or inserted objects into wounds. Nearly every week, a life is saved by vigilance and care. The women seldom want to die for ever, but just for a while - until the pain goes away.

Some women self-harm to find release from the emotional pain of past abuse: one told me how she had been forced into prostitution by the age of 11, and found that heroin blocked out the pain of the beatings by her pimp; without heroin to kill the pain, she resorted to self-harm.

Our women at Brockhill are constantly looking for things to do in their cells during the night: being unoccupied is one of the factors that leads to self-harming, but there is never enough money to keep them in cross-stitch kits, wool, and plastic knitting needles, or coloured pencils to draw pictures for their children. Chaplains are constantly having to say: "Sorry, we don't have anything to give you."

BUT how sorry should we feel for these women? What about the victims of their crimes? It is true often that they are more sinned against than sinning, but that does not undo the injustices they have inflicted on others. As Easter approaches and thoughts turn to resurrection, I wonder how many women who leave our prison will be given a real opportunity of new life. How many churches in our community would know how to welcome and minister to an ex-offender?

Inside prison, so many find support and comfort from the chaplaincy, both material and spiritual: I have never been asked to pray with people as often as I have in prison. Yet few of our women find their way into church communities outside.

As crime is perceived to be spiralling in our society, it is time for the Church to prioritise working alongside offenders and ex-offenders. The Church has traditionally been at the forefront of social reform. Now, more than ever, that leadership is needed, as we try to tackle the reasons why women and men live lives of crime.

The Revd Eva McIntyre is co-ordinating chaplain of HM Prison Brockhill.

Anyone wishing to explore the support of ex-offenders can obtain the booklet What can I do? from The Churches Criminal Justice Forum (phone 020 7901 4878; ). Diocesan offices are able to provide information on community chaplaincy.

Cross-stitch kits, knitting wool, plastic needles or crochet hooks can be sent to: The Chaplaincy, HMP/YOI Brockhill, Redditch, Worcs B97 6RD. Cheques can be made payable to "Prison Fellowship".

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