Bringing order into lives on the edge

Members of the women's drop-in service chat to justice secretary Kenny McAskill
Members of the women's drop-in service chat to justice secretary Kenny McAskill

During the last decade the number of women serving prison sentences in Scotland has more than doubled.

This worrying trend has led to an independent Commission on Women Offenders being discussed at parliament as ministers try to find the best ways to work with women in order to reduce offending and reverse the record rise in female imprisonment rates.

During a visit last week, Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill discovered Falkirk’s Brockville-based Women’s Development Service has already been following many of the recommendations laid down in the commission’s publication.

Once a week, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., the women take part in a number of activities, designed to help them and also allow them to pay their debt to the local community.

A community service worker said: “We teach them knitting, general patchwork and other crafts and the sessions help develop the women’s social skills, building up their confidence and self esteem.

“A lot of the women have never had a job, never had to get up in the morning with a purpose. That’s why we run the service like a workplace - the women have orders to fill and they feel a real sense of accomplishment when they meet an order.”

The women’s knitting creations all go to the special care baby unit of Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert.

One said: “My grandson died shortly after he was born - so I will keep knitting things for the special baby care unit even after my community service is finished.”

As well as the craft work, they also attend a drop-in centre, which gives women doing community service, or on probation, access to professionals who can advise them on the support for debt problems and benefits available to them, advice on accommodation, sexual health and other issues.

“Most of our clients have managed to move into full-time education or full-time work,” said a criminal justice social worker.

One woman doing her community service said: “When I came out of Cornton Vale I was astounded by the support that was made available to me here at Brockville. I now have my own accommodation and I’m turning my life around thanks to them.”

When asked whether they preferred serving in female prison Cornton Vale or attending the drop-in service and craft sessions, where their very presence is doing good - not only for themselves - but for the community, the vast majority of women will say the service.

“In Cornton Vale you are mixing with murderers and all sorts of serious offenders from all over the country. When you are here you are surrounded by people similar to yourself.

“It’s just good to come here and do your community service and be able to talk to people when you need help. We all get on and talk about our different experiences and how we found ourselves here in the first place.”