Lights, camera, action on crime

CD-Roms are being used to rehabilitate offenders. Charmaine Spencer explains
A drama-based interactive CD-Rom will soon be going into action as the latest weapon in a hi-tech fight against crime. It is designed to stop offenders returning to a criminal career by bringing them face to face, through a game format drama, with the consequences of their decisions.

The collaboration between IBM and two West Midlands arts groups is unique in Britain because it involves prisoners and offenders on probation in all stages of its production.

The contents of "Lifting the Weight" will come from workshops with inmates carried out by the Birmingham-based Geese Theatre Company, the UK's only professional theatrical group to use drama as an offender rehabilitation aid in prisons. Jubilee Arts of West Bromwich, which specialises in the provision of art technology, has provided the design. The project is being funded by an pounds 80,000 IBM Community Connections award.

"Lifting the Weight" is an adaptation of Geese's successful interactive production in which offenders, taking part in a decision-making process by advising the play's characters, take responsibility for the characters' consequent actions - good or bad.

The benefit for offenders is that it enables them to explore the real- life ramifications of the options the characters choose. Should newly released inmates resume contact with old criminal colleagues? If offenders were applying for a job, would they be truthful about their criminal record? If they had committed a drug offence, what would they do if they saw their old pusher? And if they were violent offenders, what would they do if a nightclub refused them entrance?

The company says that use of the CD-Rom temporarily breaks down traditional communication barriers between prison staff and their charges. There is a corresponding increase in inmates demanding help with addressing specific areas of their behaviour.

The CD-Rom has touch-screen, speed and voice-control capabilities but can be operated by people with no computer experience. It will be ready for national distribution to prisons, probation centres and other agencies working with youngsters at risk this summer.