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PATRICIA HAREN, MARY LEMON, SILE MCLEAN & JEAN O’NEILL (Probation Board for Northern Ireland)

PATRICIA HAREN, MARY LEMON, SILE MCLEAN & JEAN O’NEILL (Probation Board for Northern Ireland)

COMMENDEES 2011-12: Patricia, Mary, Sile and Jean are a multidisciplinary group commended for their pivotal roles in the development and delivery of services for women offenders in N. Ireland. (This Commendation is supported by the Wates Foundation).


[Jean O’Neill gives her account of the work for which the Probation Board for Northern Ireland were awarded a Commendation]

I was given a Butler Trust award in recognition of my role in establishing the INSPIRE Women’s project and, alongside my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), NIACRO and the Women’s Support Network (WSN) developing the Women’s Community Support Project (WCSP) which provides a partnership approach to the management of women offenders.  My particular contribution included working with the department of Justice in drafting the Strategy for the Management of Women Offenders and in the setting up of the INSPIRE Women’s Project in October 2008.

The Inspire Women’s Project provides probation supervision for women offenders subject to community supervision and post release licences.  Women also attend the project pre court for pre-sentence assessment reports and the Project also offers resettlement opportunities for women on day release prior to their release from custody.

The project provides a women-only space for women to attend Probation appointments, complete offence-focused programmes such as the Think First programme, a Home Office accredited cognitive behaviour programme for women who have more than three previous convictions, alcohol and anger management programmes and drug counselling, which are delivered by both Probation staff and a range of other support programme providers.

Inspire women’s Project has a core team of five Probation Offices, A NIACRO worker, a project worker implied by the Women’s Support Network , an administration officer and manager, with access to the overall professional support provided by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland.  Childcare is available within the project and, if appropriate, can be sourced locally through a range of providers.

On average, the Inspire Women’ Project works with 200 women offenders (approximately 50% of the total women offenders subject to probation supervision) across a wide geographical area including Belfast, North Down and Lisburn area of Northern Ireland.  The Project has developed links with a wide range of service providers across the statutory and voluntary sectors.  These partner agencies deliver a range of services and support to women offenders, and include the Prison Arts Foundation which delivers a creative arts programme with a focus on creative writing alongside a number of ‘Art’ residencies.  The Forum for Action on Substance Abuse provides drug and alcohol services to women both in the INSPIRE offices and in the community,  Barnardos provided parenting programme and family support, NIACRO provides Jobtack for Women, and has a staff member dedicated to providing employment advice, support  and training to women both in custody and in the community.  Business in the Community also provides confidence building programmes for women which can lead to mentoring opportunities in employment.

INSPIRE also liaises with a wide range of other statutory, voluntary and community agencies including housing, Social Services, Women’s Aid, Addictions NI.  The project also refers women to restorative justice practices available within Northern Ireland such as Alternatives and Community Restorative Justice Northern Ireland.

One of the significant developments attributed to the development of Inspire, is the strategic partnership model between PBNI, NIPS, NIACRO and the WSN which provides a model of partnership between the statutory, voluntary and community sectors in the provision of services to women offenders. The three organisations developed the Women Community Support Project (WCSP) which provides a range of services to women offenders both in the community and in custody.  This partnership allows for individual programmes to be tailored and provided by the agencies involved, thus ensuring a more efficient use of resources.  One of the main benefits is that the offer of support is provided to women beyond their period of incarnation and supervision, and provides long term provision in supporting key needs such as employment, health and financial advice.

The WCSP also provides training for all staff in women centres in working with women who have had experience of the criminal justice system.  This capacity-building programme was developed and delivered by NIACRO and is currently being rolled out to other women centres /groups in Northern Ireland. This training programme is now accredited by the National Open college Network.

The Inspire Women’s Project was intended to run as a pilot until March 2011, with a decision to be made at that time as to whether a permanent dedicated Inspire Women’s Project should be established in Greater Belfast area and whether the programmes and  practices pioneered at the project should be rolled out across Northern Ireland. The DoJ commissioned the London South Bank University (LSBU) to carry out an independent evaluation in July 2010.

It was agreed that LSBU would undertake both qualitative and quantitative analysis of the Inspire Women’s Project. Qualitatively, 37 in-depth semi-structured interviews with women offenders in contact with the Inspire Women’s Projects, interviews with 16 key stakeholders and 2 brief case studies were conducted.  These interviews confirmed the benefits and the difference that the Inspire Women’s Project is making to the lives of he women offenders involved.  Indeed, the Inspire Women’s project was viewed by key stakeholders as a unique and much needed service that has been highly effective. Central to the Project’s success has been its women-centred approach with involves women identifying their own needs and objectives and the wide and varied links with community based organisations including the Northern Ireland Women’ centres.   Such links with support in the community have meant that the Inspire Women’s Project can provide a ‘joined up’, rapid and cost effective response to a wide range of women offenders needs.

The main findings from this evaluation included the following

–          The importance of having a women-only service was identified as an important element of the project in that women felt more comfortable in discussing key elements of their offending behaviour and personal circumstances

–          The attitude and behaviour in staff in that the Probation offices and staff from the voluntary and community projects were seen to be non-judgemental, supportive and empathetic, all of which were instrumental in building positive relationships and encouraging change

–          The provision of practical support in dealing with areas such as domestic violence, dealing with childhood sexual and domestic violence, mental health, debt management and housing issues.

–          76% of the women interviewed reported that their self esteem and self confidence had improved as a direct result of their engagement with the project

–          78% of the women interviewed reported that they had not committed any further offences since becoming involved with Inspire Women’s project.

PBNI through its Statistics and Research Branch completed a reoffending analysis of women offenders who were supervised through the Inspire Women’s project with in the first year of the project.  This report noted that there was a statistically significant decrease in the Frequency/Gravity score, pre and post sentencing to the INSPIRE Women’s project.  This overall reduction in pre and post Frequency/Gravity scores indicates that both the gravity and frequency of offending is statistically lower in the year following referral to the Inspire Women’s project, compared to the year previous.

The quantitative data substantiates the qualitative evidence that the Inspire Women’s Project is having a statistically significant impact on levels of offending behaviour.

Although the Inspire Women’s Project  has been in operation for a relatively short time, the project received a positive evaluation, described as ‘an innovative and dynamic model of provision for women offenders’ that ‘has made a significant progress towards achieving its core aims’ (LSBU)

The Northern Ireland Prison review team reported that ‘The Inspire Project has been innovative flexible and dynamic’ in its approach to managing women’ and included in its recommendations:

The Inspire model should be adopted as the norm for dealing with women who offend.  It should be centrally funded, but planned and delivered by a partnership of statutory, voluntary and community organisations’.  (Recommendation 35) Owers report. Work has commenced in agreeing and rolling out this model of practice recognising the importance of ensuring that the services to women are consistent with the values and principles of the approach described above.


[The following article appeared in issue 4 of the Butler Trust’s magazine, Inspire]

Meanwhile, Jean O’neill of the Probation Board for NI, Sile Mclean of the NI Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Mary Lemon of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and Patricia Haren of the Women’s Support Network are a multidisciplinary group commended for their pivotal work in the development and delivery of services for women offenders.

The Inspire Project, established in October 2008, is a probation-led support and intervention service for women referred by the courts, through community supervision orders, licences and pre-sentence reports. Operating in the Greater Belfast area, it brings together statutory, voluntary and community organisations committed to the same goals.

‘We would work with women in the criminal justice system, but there was no set procedure or any programme around it – it was very ad hoc,’ says Patricia. ‘So we thought we’d have to get some resources into it, to work with our statutory and voluntary partners. The part that I run is all about getting women integrated back into the community.’

The majority of the funding comes from charitable trusts, she says. ‘We worked really, really hard to secure funding – I’m now managing four funding streams, and trying to coordinate research and reports for all four. We’ve also had fantastic feedback from the women. Coming to this project isn’t a statutory requirement – the women are coming in voluntarily – and we’ve had great results, with women coming back to volunteer on some of the programmes we do.

It’s really working out well, and our aim now is to get some kind of mainstreaming. We’ve been mentioned a lot in statutory policies, which is good for a community and voluntary organisation like ourselves.’ The scheme has worked with more than 300 women since it was set up, making more than 400 referrals to community projects, and its philosophy is to treat people as ‘women first, citizens second and offenders third’. It seems to be paying off, with an evaluation by South Bank University finding that 76 per cent of the women reported that their self-esteem and self-confidence had improved as a result of the service. As well as support with resettlement and reintegration, there are also personal development, counselling, parenting and arts programmes to boost self-esteem.

The important thing is commitment, stresses Patricia. ‘You’re in it for the long-term with a lot of the women we’re working with. A lot have mental health issues, there’s domestic violence – things that don’t clear up overnight. The economic climate obviously worries us, and the changes to welfare reform, because the majority of the crime we see in Northern Ireland is low level – shoplifting, defaulting on fines, benefit fraud. That can all be made worse in a real economic downturn.’

For more information: contact Probation Board for Northern Ireland

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