With almost every aspect of public spending coming under scrutiny in Great Britain, it is no surprise that the costs of running the prison service are being challenged. Britain’s Justice Secretary Ken Clarke wants to reduce the prison population and make a virtue of it.

The confident assertion 17 years ago by the then Tory home secretary, Michael Howard, that “prison works” is now matched by a more nuanced approach. While prison clearly works as a punishment and also protects society from those convicted of violent crime and who pose a danger to others, it does little to rehabilitate. In this regard, prison fails, and this is widely acknowledged.

This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with re-offending rates. Whether or not prison is “the industrial warehousing of offenders,” overcrowding works against this role of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate offenders.

The devil, as always, will be in the detail: just which offenses should no longer routinely attract a short prison sentence of a few months? A frontrunner ought to be a review of the way we view drug abuse.

At least the new approach, outlined June 30, affects prisoners who, on the whole, have been convicted of a crime. Pity, then, those women featured in a report on the BBC just a day earlier. They were incarcerated in the women’s prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, delightfully named The Almond Garden, although nothing about their treatment was delightful.

Were these women hardened criminals? Thieves, murderers or insurgents, perhaps? No, their “crimes” seemed to be something called “bad character.”

Take 16-year-old Sabera, for instance. Why was she in prison? “I was about to get engaged, and the boy came to ask me himself, before sending his parents. A lady in our neighborhood saw us and called the police,” she explains. She was sentenced to three years, later shortened to 18 months.

“In many cases women run away because they can’t bear the domestic violence and then they are picked up and taken into custody for a long time,” argues Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. These are the “crimes” for which Afghan women are imprisoned.

“We are not in Afghanistan to challenge such abuses but to protect the streets of Britain from terrorists” goes the argument peddled by the government. This is an argument that increasingly sounds hollow, not least since we seem quite capable of producing homegrown terrorists, and the center of Al Qaeda’s operations is now found in our ally Pakistan.

However, when we first invaded Afghanistan, it was precisely such oppression that lent some legitimacy to the regime change that was necessary. So when did we lose the courage to challenge the continuing oppression of women in Afghanistan?

This is not the imposition of our Western cultural values, rooted as they are in the Christian tradition, but rather the challenging of injustice and oppression of fellow human beings, made in God’s image and who deserve the same rights as men. We cannot challenge the injustice felt by many women in our own Baptist Union and ignore far graver injustices elsewhere.

That’s parochialism of the saddest kind. Both are signs of the malignant oppression of women throughout our world, to which the Church of Jesus Christ has often lent support, to its shame and the impoverishment of its witness to the gospel.

Addressing what we must in our own back yard cannot justify complacency when we are faced by systemic injustice elsewhere. Not until the whole earth is “full of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” can we afford to say “job done.”

While we reduce the prison population in Britain, a robust challenge to the continuing oppression of women by the state we are propping up in Afghanistan would not go amiss. Removing the Taliban is a first step, but replacing it with a similarly abusive regime, locking up women who are judged by standards that are quite simply wrong, seems to diminish the worth of more than 300 British military deaths and the hundreds maimed and disabled.

Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times.

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