Kirsty Scott: Scotland's new approach to female offenders

How can the courts cope with the massive explosion in the female prison population? By using Indian head massage and yoga? Kirsty Scott on Scotland's revolutionary - and successful - new approach

Sophia Young opens the door to one of the bedrooms in the large Georgian townhouse on the edge of Glasgow's city centre.

"Lovely, isn't it?" she says. The walls of the room are soothing blue, the bed adorned with bright scatter cushions and a throw, two fluffy towels folded neatly at its foot. There is a hairdryer in the dresser drawer and a safe for valuables in the small wardrobe. The sound system comes with a selection of ambient and relaxation CDs and the azure-tiled en-suite with shower gel, Dove shampoo, and conditioner. Head massage and acupuncture services are on offer and downstairs there is a chill-out room.

Beyond the window the neighbourhood is smart; the imposing stone facades house clubs and restaurants and shiny corporate offices. This could be a boutique hotel. But it's not. It is the UK's first criminal justice-led alternative to prison for female offenders.

"Environment is critical for women," says Sophia Young, manager of the centre known as 218. "Think about it, it's what makes you sit down and relax. Anyway, it costs as much to send a woman to rehab as it does to a hotel so why should we have crap services? Why can't we have quality accommodation, quality food?"

Down in the kitchen, Michelle, wan and edgy, is nursing a cup of coffee. Other women gather around her at the long wooden table. There's a pot of tea on the go, food in the fridge and stylish prints on the bright blue walls. The air is filled with fag smoke and chatter. The sign on the door says The Doll's House.

Michelle only came for the methadone. A long-term heroin addict, she expected little from the project that Glasgow Sheriff Court offered her as an alternative to prison for her drug dealing.

"I was, like, I'll get in and get out as quick as I can," says the 32-year-old mother. "I had been using drugs for years. I didn't plan to stay.

"I would have gone to prison if I had not come here. I was arrested for dealing and trafficking heroin. It would definitely have been custody. My partner got 11 months."

Michelle knows she can leave if she wants - although if she did, she would have to go back into the conventional criminal justice system. "But, you know, once I was here, I thought, I can really get over my drug problems. Just having a stable environment and routine, the methadone, having the support of the other women. There's group work, and one-on-one. You can go out and your family can come to see you."

And when they do it is a much more comfortable experience, which is so important, particularly for children. "I have a wee boy of six, he comes up to visit me. He can run about the rooms," says Michelle. "At the moment he is visiting his dad in prison. It is a big, big difference. Here and there. My partner has been in and out of prison all his life and it did him no good. How would prison have helped my problems?"

It is that question that 218 is meant to answer. In the past 10 years, the UK's female prison population has exploded. In Scotland it has risen by 62%, four times the rate for male inmates. In England and Wales, the number of female inmates is up from 1,500 in 1992 to 4,000. At any one time there are around 300 women behind bars in Scotland, most in the only dedicated women's prison at Cornton Vale near Stirling. Almost 80% of them are from the Glasgow area, many only serve a couple of months for offences such as non-payment of fines from previous offences so there can be a high turnover and in reality more than 300 women per year will pass through the prison system.

After a series of suicides at Cornton Vale in the early 1990s, Scotland's politicians were determined to get to the root of women's offending. The success of a small Glasgow women's project, which managed to reduce drug use and offending in 60% of its clients, caught their eye and the Turnaround scheme was given the contract to run 218.

The centre, which opened in December, is being funded with £1.54m a year from the Scottish Executive with support from the local council and health board. It makes financial sense. It costs a whopping £9m a year to keep the 300 women in Scotland's prisons; 218 plans to deal with 500 women in the same period through residential and daily programmes. If it works as well as is hoped, the project could be rolled out across Scotland, revolutionising the criminal justice system for women.

Women can be referred by the courts and from prison through a variety of probation or diversion orders, or by themselves if they have been in custody in the past 12 months. Their offences are mostly minor: prostitution, theft, shoplifting, assault, almost all borne of drug or alcohol abuse. The centre includes a detox facility, a 14-bed residential unit and outreach to health, social work and housing services. The key is to find and address the root causes of offending. The approach is holistic and alternative therapies play a key role. All staff are trained in Indian head massage; many in acupuncture. Both of these therapies are offered every night to aid sleep and lessen the symptoms of withdrawal. There are dental and medical services, a chill-out zone and a medical room that I almost mistook for a Clarins spa. They've called one of the consulting rooms The Priory.

Residents can go out to shop or walk, accompanied by a member of staff. Programmes are tailored to each woman. Activity evenings address everything from relationships to substance abuse. There are yoga, dance mats, movie nights and board games.

The women won't ever stay for less time than the order that sent them here; often they will stay longer. They can leave if they wish but will go back into the criminal justice system if they do, whether that means seeing out a custodial sentence or some other form of punishment.

"It does not matter if she is sent by a court or self-refers; what matters is where is she and what she needs," says Young. "We have been asked to look at the root causes of women's offending. We look at the drug use, alcohol use, poverty, and abuse that drove it."

Young calls the women "customers", staff behave like new best friends. There's only one man on the premises, a jovial chef.

"The idea is to get women in a community setting to have the kind of life that we expect," says Young. "Once you are living in a house you have the opportunity to get well, you are able to get through your day without recourse to shoplifting or working the streets or jagging needles in your arm; just to cope on a daily basis."

Claire appreciates the comforts provided for her. "They've done a brilliant job," she says. "It's really comfortable; you feel you can relax."

The 21-year-old was caught early. She got hooked on heroin at university and started shoplifting to feed her habit. She is a self-referral and has been clean for three days. "I'm just sweating a little bit," she says. "But it's nothing bad at all. You can see results here. It's only been open four or five weeks and two people have done a detox. There's quite a few people who've come in who were quite chaotic and they are stable now.

"Prison doesn't do anybody any good, especially vulnerable women. Here, it is a dream, really; you get everything back that you lost through drugs."

Young bristles at suggestions that the centre might seen by some as a soft option. "Do you know, the only people who ask me that are journalists. I have great faith in the community. We were pushing against an open door with this community. These women are in a real poor state and our community wants something done. They have had nothing but support and kindness.

"We could not have had this 10 years ago. We were too afraid of the margins of our own society and we could not engage with it in an open way. Now, we are all working with these problems."

Cathy Jamieson, Scotland's justice minister, is equally adamant that 218 does not let offenders off the hook. "It is not a soft option," she says. "It is a rigorous community alternative to which the courts and other services can refer women. It will challenge behaviour and attitudes as well as offer help. There may be more around the country in the future."

Like most homes, the kitchen of 218 is the focus of daily life. There are mini-kitchens in the rooms, but the women are encouraged to eat together. They like to, anyway. "The primary idea that is going on here is relationships," says Young. "What works for women is relationships. Women don't want to hear anything from you until they know about you. What is your story? Do your have kids? What do you do? Oh, that's who you are. OK, what do you have to tell me?"

It is too early to say what effect 218 will have on patterns of offending, but Michelle, who has seven weeks more to go, has no doubt that it has offered her a fresh start. For the first time in a decade she can look ahead.

"It is not easy," she says. "We do a lot of work; group work, a lot of feelings comes up. It's difficult, a lot of the women find it hard. "But I think I really would like to do this kind of work. I'm hoping to go to college, maybe do a kind of foundation course, and then carry on to some sort of care work, starting off from here."


Kirsty Scott

The GuardianTramp

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