Opting in keeps them out

Community service orders are helping offenders back into society and providing them with skills

Jean McLeish

He is 65 and ashamed he is having this conversation - his last prison sentence was a long time ago. But a drink-related offence put him in the dock again and this time he has been given a community service order.

He is also too embarrassed to give his real name, but "Dan" says he quit drinking nine months ago and this unpaid work he's doing is opening a world he thought he'd never know.

"I'm learning about the computer. I have plugged them in before, but I've never used them. It's a lot better than going to prison," he says, working with his tutor on a leaflet they are designing for a community project.

"It's years since I have been in prison, but in those days you learned nothing. Being here, doing what I am doing now is helping me and, hopefully, helping other people."

The leaflet will help, but it is also giving Dan a glimpse of new possibilities. He left school with no qualifications but he has decided to take up further learning opportunities.

He is just one of the success stories of a pioneering project in Aberdeen, which is introducing an educational element to the work offenders do when they're sentenced to community service orders as an alternative to prison.

Most of those attending this centre will be younger than Dan and will have been in and out of prison with regularity. Many will be battling drug and alcohol addictions and will struggle to keep family relationships going. So boosting confidence and offering new opportunities to achieve is a way of demonstrating that life outside has more to offer than jail.

"Literacy levels among offenders are grim. National statistics show that 66 per cent of people in prisons have difficulties with basic literacy skills," says Alasdair Johnston, from Aberdeen City Council's adult learning department. "So we've seen getting integrated with the Social Work Criminal Justice Service as a key part of reaching potential learners whom we would find difficult to reach."

Alasdair and his colleagues work with inmates in Aberdeen Prison, but once the men leave jail, contact can be lost and literacy work ends. This new adult-learning project, collaborating with the council's community service orders team, helps keep education alive among offenders outside, hopefully boosting their chances of staying out of jail.

The acting leader of the community service orders team, Martin Thain, explains: "We have been looking at some of the things which help get people out of offending and how we can make community service have more of a role in getting people back into the community, rather than just being seen as a punishment, which is the usual view of it.

"Traditionally, a lot of it has been based on building trades type skills and people have gone out in work parties and done gardening, repairs, learning joinery skills and that sort of thing.

"What we have been looking at through this is how we can give people a broader range of skills and experiences that hopefully can get people into positive routines towards employment," he says.

Martin's team provides a varied range of opportunities. People can work in charity shops, outdoors on environmental projects or in workshops discovering talents they didn't know they had. A charity craft sale showcases some of the work - "There are some nice pieces, because some folk are quite arty and didn't know it," says Martin.

Over the past year, new opportunities to do computer-related work and learn film-making techniques have complemented what is on offer. One of the first projects was a piece made by offenders to highlight the benefits of community service orders over custodial sentences.

Options InOut is a short film made by six men with no previous filming or editing experience. It may not win a Bafta, but as a first effort by Gary C, Gary M, Henry T, Jim M, James H and George R - it is impressive and will be shown to people who are new to the service at inductions.

Adult literacies tutor Joan Melton worked with them. "The guys who have done this film are really proud of it and it is something they can show their families. It is also something they will always have," she says.

"Some of them never got any SQAs and this was a way of reaching them in an educational way which was less formal. It wasn't like joining an evening class, but they have benefited a lot from it."

The film crew had to write letters requesting permission to film, then learn camera skills and how to edit on the computer. They had to work as a team and discuss editorial strategies - learning skills which media professionals can take years to master. Next year, their work will be showcased to an audience which will include sheriffs they may have faced in court.

"Five of them have done SQA Access 3 Working with Others. Another has done Intermediate 1, the next level up. So five out of the six participants have an SQA qualification and the other one would have, but he left the project early on, because he got a job - so that's good as well," says Joan, who also teaches at Aberdeen Prison.

One of the men has bought his own camera and uses it to film his children: "I got into the whole thing and found it fascinating," says Jim M, who is now eager to find new filming opportunities.

These new projects must have benefit for the community, as Sally Wilkins, from Aberdeen City Council, points out. She is the council's strategist on adult protection and quality assurance and criminal justice, and was instrumental in getting funding for this venture. "It's also about making reparations to the community, and if you are locked away in prison you just can't do that," she says.

Two men from the first film project are now helping to mentor the next film crew. Alasdair says a measure of success is that people turned up regularly and that two men still continued to attend, even after they had completed their community service order.

"To me, that's a real measure of success, because if your community service order is digging gardens or something like that, I would suggest that most folk when they finish their hours are not going to volunteer, but a couple of guys just kept coming."

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Jean McLeish

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