Gordon Thomson: Using the wilderness to help women break the cycle of offending

Scotland continues to have one of the highest rates of imprisonment for women in Northern Europe. And many of the women who end up in prison are either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences.

Scotland continues to have one of the highest rates of imprisonment for women in Northern Europe. And many of the women who end up in prison are either on remand or serving sentences for minor, non-violent offences.

It is also a sad fact that the majority of women going through the criminal justice system hail from disadvantaged backgrounds, often suffering from a range of issues including abuse, addiction, poor mental health and a history of care experience.

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Scottish charity Venture Trust is addressing these underlying causes with its Next Steps programme to keep women out of prison.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has acknowledged “the damaging impact that going in and out of prison has for the women, for their families and for their communities”. He said a new approach was needed. “We need to continue to transform and improve services for women so that we can help them to break the cycle of reoffending.”

Venture Trust’s Next Steps programme – specifically for women who’ve been involved in offending or are at high risk of offending – is breaking the cycle. Over the last five years women on the programme have succeed in making and sustaining positive changes in their lives; with 86 per cent of participants showed increased self-confidence; 83 per cent improved their employability skill; 65 per cent showed behaviours and circumstances likely to reduce risks of reconviction; 50 per cent improved their relationships with those around them, and were making increased use of services and opportunities in their community such as libraries, gyms or doctors’ surgeries.

The programme, funded by The Big Lottery, uses the wilderness as a supportive therapeutic environment for learning and development. With many of the pressures the women face back in their communities on hold, they can experience a personal development programme supported by Venture Trust’s qualified staff. Participants are met and supported by outreach teams in their communities before experiencing an intensive five day wilderness journey followed by ongoing community-based support from Venture Trust and other partners.

Venture Trust outreach manager Gordon Thomson said there is an “immense challenge” for organisations working with women in the Scottish community justice system to help them turn their life around.

“Discussions with many women have highlighted feelings of loss and in some cases an ongoing deterioration of personal aspirations for their own development. Many describe their multiple roles in life – and as carers have always put the futures of ‘the other’ ahead of their own aspirations to better themselves, whether that be in a personal, educational or in a career context,” he said.

Add factors such as living with addiction, domestic or sexual violence, poor mental health and the immensity of the challenge community justice and other statutory and third sector partners have in guiding women caught up in the criminal justice system to turn their life around becomes apparent.

“As feelings of low self-worth manifest themselves, missed opportunities pepper the histories of these women and compound internalised feelings of failure. Sadly many women won’t seek or feel worthy enough to apply for further life changing possibilities. They have a fear of failure which hinders aspiration.”

However, despite the challenges to reach women in the justice system, the Next Steps programme has operated at increased scale to reach greater numbers of vulnerable women. Last year, 387 females with a history of offending took part in the programme, an increase of 23 per cent with referrals from over 100 different organisations across Scotland.

This reflects the value of Venture Trust’s outreach model which ensures services reach individuals in need including those women from smaller or more geographically remote local authority areas. It also reflects the demand to address the current and urgent unmet need specifically for women to tackle the underlying causes of offending behaviour.

Gordon Thomson, Venture Trust