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11 June 2014
Tomorrow’s women

Tomorrow’s women

“When I came here I was a broken woman. I am not saying that I am better but I’m not broke.” Pauline first walked through the door of Glasgow Community Justice Centre earlier this year after two of the workers, including a prison officer seconded from HMP Greenock whose path she had crossed before, came to see her as her release date neared.

She had not long been released from a spell in intensive care after a serious non-fatal overdose. By her own admission, decades of being caught up in addiction and offending has left her “quite institutionalised” and for the last 12 years, effectively, Pauline has been homeless. Building relationships is a particularly difficult task, she admits. And, yet, sitting round the kitchen table at the centre four months after her first visit, she seems at ease as the seven of us – including Mark, the prison officer in question – chat away over coffee. “I’ve found people that I can trust and talk to,” she says.

Pauline visits the centre voluntarily. She is currently on a court order, though her attendance is not mandatory. In fact, only one woman engaged with is required to do so. Instead, the centre’s referral criteria focuses on women either scoring high on risk assessments for breach of a Community Payback Order (CPO) or fresh from finishing a short-term custodial sentence. Workers wish that to remain the case, afraid that systemic use by the courts as a condition of orders handed down may undermine buy-in from the women they work with. “Now I wouldn’t go to something even when I had an order so that tells you there must be something good about it,” says Pauline. “You feel better in yourself because you know you’re doing it for you, you’re not doing it because you are being told to do it.”

Since late December last year, what’s been taking place on the ground floor of the Adelphi Centre in the Gorbals – the home of the centre, or ‘Tomorrow’s Women’ as the service users have elected to call themselves – is, indeed, somewhat groundbreaking. And, yet, it is by no means complicated. Dame Elish Angiolini’s landmark commission on women offenders of 2012 is remembered particularly for its calls to flatten Cornton Vale. Yet, the creation of ‘one stop shops’ that would provide access to a range of services for women to ‘reduce reoffending and bring about behavioural change’ was in fact number one on a list of 37 recommendations the former Lord Advocate compiled.

In Glasgow, the physical realisation of Angiolini’s vision is not so much a centre as it is a corridor. Given that staff envisage working with up to 100 women at any one time and only have two classrooms, apart from the spacious open-plan sitting area and kitchen where we sit, space is clearly limited. However, the project’s great strength lies in its personnel.

Two social workers, two social care workers, a secondee from the Scottish Prison Service and another from Glasgow Housing Association, as well as two mental health nurses and a psychologist, all reside under a single roof. Work undertaken with women referred, who up till now have ranged in age from 22 right through to 61, involves an initial case conference that brings all agencies, as well as the service user, round the table to identify what the individual’s needs are. A three-stage trauma model – establishing safety, remembrance and mourning, then reconnection – is being embedded into the activity that follows.

“I have worked in an integrated team before with social work,” explains Sarah, one of the nurses. “But what I’ve not had is Mark, who is seconded from the prison service and Andrea from GHA. Being able to access those kind of services and that kind of knowledge has been really helpful, being able to understand what the women are feeling and being experiencing while they’ve been in custody, and the transition of coming out, because we can always meet people in the community once they’re out but understanding that transition period, I’ve not had a handle on that before.”

Individual work, whether it is one-to-one sessions with either the mental health nurses or consultant psychologist, or advice, support and advocacy to access appropriate housing, is offered. Homelessness, for instance, is an issue that is not isolated to just Pauline. Nearly two-thirds of the 70 women that the project worked with in its first six months cited housing as an issue. A breakfast club is run for women who come to the centre, while a makeshift clothes bank sits in the corner of one of their classrooms. On the day Holyrood visits, the rail looks rather empty, though I am assured it had been crammed full not all that long ago.

“I’ve been getting really frustrated trying to get some of the women accommodation, so I don’t know how they feel if I am getting frustrated,” says Mark, the SPS secondee. “Something I think we’ve recognised, and I think everybody recognises, is that accommodation is the key to everything else to start with. Once you’ve got the accommodation sorted, you can start doing other work. If you don’t get that sorted out, everything else is harder to do.” The sheer number of registered social landlords across the city has complicated their efforts, though staff are holding out hope that a review of homeless services, expected to conclude later in the year, will help.

Welfare rights support, as well as legal advice via monthly drop-in sessions from Gorbals Law Centre, is also available. The impact of welfare reforms is being closely monitored, with discussions around certain exemptions ongoing. “Looking at universal credit coming over the horizon, that on a personal level, scares me considerably because if we go on the assumption that folk will be given all their money at the beginning of a month or a four-week cycle, we’re working with folk where that money will be gone within that day,” says criminal justice service manager, Jim McBride.

Though still in its infancy, various group work exercises are being explored. Lifelink, a Glasgow-based social enterprise charity focused on mental health, will return this month to deliver sessions in stress management and confidence building after holding taster classes. A cookery class focused on healthy eating on a budget was scheduled to get under way this month, linking in with health practitioners but led by some of the service users. Angela, one of the first women to use the service, has volunteered to help take the class, her confidence clearly boosted by eight months of interaction with staff and fellow users. Their creative writing, produced as part of adult literacy work, hangs in the corridor for visitors to see. Of the dozen or so framed poems, one begins and ends with the telling words, ‘Everyone starts out as a flower’.

There is, of course, far more to the story than cooking and creative writing. “We had one woman turn up with her pyjamas on,” recalls team leader, Anne Gallacher. “We’ve got a clothes bank now because, again, it’s the most basic needs. We have got a washing machine, a dryer, we’re running a breakfast club, women will come here and they are hungry. As I said, one woman came here with her pyjamas on, she came in and had a shower, got clothes out the clothes bank, came had something to eat and then we dealt with her issues around housing. It is meeting very, very, very basic needs.”

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of those referred cite alcohol as an issue, three-fifths (59 per cent) drugs, and four-fifths (79 per cent) mental health. “We’re a very experienced team working in this field but I think we’re even finding it quite surprising how chaotic some women really are,” adds Gallacher.

“They have got a multitude of complex issues that they are dealing with. A lot of women don’t have trust in services so it is about building that relationship and we’re going to where the women are at to engage with them rather than saying, here is an appointment through a letter, come in and see us. That doesn’t work – we know that that is not working. So we are going to them.”

That process can be a protracted one. In some cases, several home visits are required before a woman will come to the centre. “For a lot of women, it’s one step forward and two back,” says Gallacher. “But the good thing is that for a lot of the most chaotic women we’re working with, they are coming back and they’re coming back here on their own, even if they’re turning up without an appointment. A lot of women that we’re working with, we’ll maybe see them and then they’ll disappear for a couple of weeks but they’re coming back, which is good. We have seen a lot of progress already with some women.” Indeed, all three women sitting round the table cite the simple fact of feeling safe as a specific reason for coming back. Where women do come back, bus tokens and travel cards can be made available. “Some of them are actually penniless,” adds Gallacher.

Frequent visits to Cornton Vale and Greenock prisons have been facilitated through Mark, a prison officer for 20-plus years, allowing workers to engage with women, irrespective of whether their circumstances have suddenly shifted. “I think that is one of the things as well that women have recognised, that we’re not giving up on them simply because they go back [to prison],” says McBride.

“This week alone, we’ve had four women out, four women back in the jail within, I think the longest was out just over 24 hours, she was back in again. But the difference now that we have got the secondment from SPS is we’re straight back in the jail again, we can then just pick up and engage with the women again and I think they recognise that we’re not going to give up on them easy.”

Word of mouth is spreading. “I was round Cornton Vale the other week there, I was in to see somebody specifically, but within five minutes, I had like ten people round me, ‘oh, I’ve heard about your service from other women,’” says Mark. Having only been in their current premises for six months, that is an encouraging sign. It does, however, create some anxiety. “Bet you any money, because it will have that good feedback, I reckon in two years, there will be that many people who want to come here it’ll be a waiting list,” says Pauline.

Is it having an impact on reoffending rates, though, one of the key motivations underpinning Angiolini’s recommendation? “It is very difficult to say at this point and I think, as I said, it needs to be a longer [look],” says Gallacher. “To be honest, I’m not sure; it is too soon to say that. All I can say just now is that women are really encouraged to come here and they are coming here, so for every time that they are here they are not out there reoffending. I don’t know, we’ll need to just keep monitoring that.”

Fifteen women who have been involved in services before, during and after their involvement with the centre are being tracked, with a view to sketching out savings for partners given sustainability, akin to public social partnerships focused on female offenders, is a growing concern. “Although we can’t [yet] prove it, for some of the women that we are working with, if we weren’t working with them they would be back in prison,” says Gallacher.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” adds McBride. “I’d actually say for some women it wouldn’t surprise us if, sadly, they might be dead if it hadn’t been for that. And I know that sounds a bit dramatic, yet when you look at some of the acute issues that we’re picking up right at the beginning, you’re talking about histories of self-harm, histories of suicide attempts, you’re talking about non-fatal overdoses, so when you take all of that into account, homeless, sleeping rough, etc, it’s inevitable that you just know in our experience in Glasgow that there can be really horrible outcomes. So far, I think at the minimum, you’re talking about if we can keep a woman out of jail then we’re going in the right direction because for so many women, jail is also a kind of safe haven for them. It’s a break to recharge the batteries; it gave them a chance to build up again. But it’s a sad indictment that the best we’ve got to say is that for some women it’s going in jail.”

Changing that will take time, of course. Pauline, for instance, admits to still having “dips” in terms of offending. “But if I wasn’t here, I’d probably be back in the jail by now [with] a lot more offences so it is still an improvement to what my last 20 years have been.”

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