FOR more than a decade, female offenders have been undergoing a new type of justice in the heart of Glasgow.

As an alternative to being banged up, they are taking part in a residential and community engagement service which could represent the future of the Scottish criminal justice system.

The 218 Service, gives hope to women who are trapped in a cycle of offending and often facing long term drug and alcohol addiction.

A small team of staff are on hand to provide intensive support and group work to empower the women to address the root causes of their offending.

Their approach will be replicated at the Community Custody Unit (CCU), set to open in Maryhill, where lower-risk female prisoners will be housed.

“I know some people would probably see us as a softer option but I don't believe that's true”, Sandra Mutter, Service Manager at the Turning Point founded 218 Service explains.

“In here, there is no hiding place. The women are made to look at their behaviours and how they can make changes to that.

“The difference between in 218 and in prison is that with the low numbers, people are able to actively engage in the program and are okay about letting their guard down.

“They’re not being judged or need to be defensive. In prison with hundreds of women you have to protect yourself and you don't want to let your guard down.”

Women of all ages are referred or self-referred to the service, with some being made to attend through court orders.

Drug or alcohol addictions, abusive relationships, homelessness and children being removed from their care, are common features in the women’s stories.

Adult and childhood trauma has often led to a pattern of behaviour that even the women themselves are unable to understand.

The 218 Service offers a holistic approach with doctors, psychiatrists and a full health and social care team.

“The women in here will tell you that they’ve committed a crime and should be punished. Nobody is taking that punishment element away from them, but they want the rehabilitation.

“We work in partnership with Glasgow City Council and various other services so the women leave us with a network built around about them.

“We’ll gradually introduce them into the community through a risk assessment.

"They would go back into the community for a few hours one day and then we do a full debriefing when they come back in. When they go back out we start building that up until it’s nearer their time to be discharged.

“We offer them a six-week after care once they are discharged or they can be supported throughout the community. We can see them for up to a year.”

Offenders are able to use the service if they have been committed of low to medium offences within one year of starting.

The majority of service users from 2016 had committed theft by shoplifting before being referred. A total of 52 women shoplifted 228 times, an average of 4.4 times per person, while 58 committed a breach of the peace.

Assaulting a police officer, breach of bail conditions and common assault could also result in a woman being referred.

While Sandra agrees that there is a place in prison for women who commit violent crimes, rehabilitation is their number one priority.

Within the city centre unit, a total of 12 women can undergo a residential stay where they receive round-the-clock support including helping them get on to a healthy eating and sleeping pattern.

Staff will also work to help those who may have come out of homelessness to secure a safe and stable tenancy for when they leave the centre.

In 2015, Thenue Housing Association leased the project the '218 flat' which is used by women for short tenancies to prepare them for the future and to prevent them from leaving into homelessness.

In many circumstances, women have lost custody of their children and obtaining a tenancy can go a long way towards helping regain it or even to be allowed supervised visits.

“We’re looking to help the next generation of children coming up and keeping families together”, Sandra adds.

“Most of the women supported within 218 have parents who have committed crimes or been in an institution, so we’re trying to do as early intervention as possible.

“If I can address their issues just now, maybe there will be a responsible citizen within the community and possibly working in paid employment, within a few years.

"Either that or you've got a lifetime of a revolving door of coming in and out of prison.

“People need a purpose and a reason and they need hope and opportunity and I think without it, how does anybody move forward?

“That can include you and me. We all need something to look forward to and something to drive us.

“We say to the women, you may never get your child back but that shouldn't stop you from moving forward because you may get that chap at the door one day when they go into adulthood.

"You’ve made mistakes sometimes it’s too late to overturn it but you have to keep moving forward.

"They say, if they build more prisons we’ll fill them, but I think we need to look at alternatives to getting the community right."

The service was initially launched over ten years ago in response the number of suicides of women in and on bail from Cornton Vale.

The prison had become notorious with violence before being earmarked for closure.

Irene, was referred to the service after coming out of prison but struggled to engage due to being in an abusive relation and having long term drug addiction.

She explains: “The first time I went my head was just full of madness. I was still taking drugs and had just got out of prison.

“I didn’t want to go to any group work, I didn’t co-operate with staff - as soon as my court order was up, I was out back on drugs and committing crime.

"Up until last year I had been doing the same until I began with them in December 2015. I was turning up every few days, out my face on drugs and not really engaging with them.

"I got a 12-month and four month sentence and my key worker suggested applying for a tag to the 218,

“When my three months were up, I was set to leave.

"My initial thought was to go in to get out of jail. I was on 95ml of methadone at the time.

"The night before the staff sat me down and told me that I could get off the drugs and make a life for myself and just having someone believing in me was what I needed to believe in myself. I ended up believing in myself.

"I managed to get my Suboxone down to 2ml. I do voluntary work, I've linked in with Commonwealth House and I'm on the sub-committee group, and I'm linked in with the criminal justice group. I'm a vice chair at Springburn college for Spark. I've done loads of training and haven't picked up another charge for two years.

"From the age of 13 right up to 38 I was committing crimes, drinking on the street and getting caught with drugs. I had recently came out a violent relationship - it was all co-dependency on the drugs.

“It's made me the person I am today. I feel like I'm emotionally attached to the service now."