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Female offenders lend a helping hand
CHATTING with Elisha, it’s hard to believe that the 31-year-old has spent four and a half months behind bars.
Articulate, warm and enthusiastic, she’s not the sort of person who springs to mind when you think of an offender.
But then none of the women I meet at Southampton ’s Administration Resource Centre (ARC), run by Women’s Wisdom, are.
The ARC, in Southampton city centre, is an innovative community payback project for women offenders.
Working with the Hampshire Probation Trust it provides administration support, such as data entry and packing, for local community groups, social enterprises and businesses.
Its unique feature is that the services are provided by female offenders on community payback as a creative solution to reducing female offending.
The aim is to increase rehabilitation by addressing the reasons behind offending and provides experience and training.
Each woman has her own story of how she became involved in crime . But each also seems to have a determination to leave that firmly in the past and progress with their lives.
Elisha (not her real name) took out fraudulent loans from the company she worked for.
She was, she says, bullied into doing so by someone she was close to, who beat her up when she refused.
She was sentenced to three years in prison, but as a model prisoner she was released much earlier.
She was devastated by her sentence as her children had to go into foster care.
But, she says, her experience in prison and the training she received there was life changing.
She was in a women’s prison, where Women’s Wisdom runs workshops and classes for prisoners.
“I was offered courses in so many different things in there,” she says.
“It was such a negative situation but it had such a positive outcome. I did training and became a classroom assistant for adults. Women’s Wisdom were in there doing creative business enterprise. To have that in prison, when you’re thinking ‘I’m a failure’, to have someone come in and say that was incredible.”
Elisha says she was very downtrodden before she went into prison, but the experience helped her grow as a person.
“I come from a very strict British Muslim family but when I was in prison, I took off my scarf and I went to the gym.
“When I went into prison I realised how many women were in there for something involving a man. I knew I had to do something to help other women when I came out.”
Elisha returned to work with Women’s Wisdom, this time as a volunteer at their ARC project in Southampton.
“I teach empowerment and also volunteer at a refuge and with young people,” she says.
“I’m looking for work but the knock backs don’t get me down. Now I know if ten doors close, one will open. I’m so geared up thanks to Women’s Wisdom to keep on trying, so I haven’t fallen back.
“I have loads of regrets but I’ve learnt from the experience,” she says. “I’m in a better place now.”
When I meet Sarah*, 32, she has just finished her last hour of community service at the Arc project but she is going to be coming back as a member of staff.
A personal assistant, she had committed fraud by using a company credit card to buy things for herself.
“I was in a hell of a lot of debt,” she says.
“I was a new mum struggling with my debt payments and unfortunately I used that route.
“I knew it was wrong but I was so desperate. I was a new mum and recently single and I was trying to do what I thought was the best thing to bring up my children. It wasn’t the right thing to do but I thought I’d deal with the consequences afterwards.
“When it came to light it was the worst moment of my life. It wasn’t the fact that I’d been caught but the realisation that what I’d done was so severe and what the consequences might be – that I could lose my children (if I was sent to prison).”
Sarah was handed a 12 month prison sentence suspended for two years, 300 hours of community service and a six month curfew.
She was sent to the ARC centre for her community service where she was been doing admin, typing, developing databases, packing and helping others with their computer skills.
“When I was given my sentence I was so relieved not to be in custody that I saw this as a new part of my life. I wanted to grab it with both hands and turn my life around.
“Having a criminal record I thought going back into employment and being able to provide a good future for my children would be difficult but coming here, they’ve given me support and guidance, so you realise it isn’t the end of the road.”
Sarah has got on so well at the ARC centre that she has been taken on as a member of staff. She has, she says, definitely moved on.
“I would never do anything like that again,” she says of the fraud.
She adds that her experience is reflected in the other women she has met at the centre.
“Having been here since January I’ve watched a lot of women come in for different reasons and seen them flourish because they’ve accomplished something.”