Women get training as alternative to prison

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The Independent Online

Women facing possible jail sentences for theft and fraud are being sent on college computer courses to learn desktop publishing as an alternative to sending them to prison.

Women facing possible jail sentences for theft and fraud are being sent on college computer courses to learn desktop publishing as an alternative to sending them to prison.

The controversial idea, which is being pioneered in London, is intended to prevent harm being done to children who would be separated from their mothers if they were jailed. It is one option being explored by probation officers in an attempt to reduce the female prison population, which has more than doubled in the last seven years to 3,300.

Women facing prison sentences of up to three months are instead being told to attend college once a week for seven hours of computer training as part of courses which run for around six months. They are allowed time off to collect their children from school.

The programme was backed last night by Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, which produced a major report yesterday calling for radical measures to stop the growing pattern of sending women offenders to jail.

She said: "This is a good example of a programme which is focused on the particular needs of women. It enables them to gain real skills and hopefully get real work as a result. It also gives them the opportunity to stay at home with their families. In our view, very few women need to be incarcerated."

The new computer course began at the start of this academic year at a college in west London, which is being kept secret so that offenders are not identifiable to their fellow students. Women - and some male offenders - are given the opportunity to learn skills in desktop publishing, word processing and IT presentation. Successful students obtain a European qualification similar to an NVQ.

Susan Lord, of the Inner London Probation Service, which is overseeing the programme, said: "It is our view that the children of offenders should not suffer from court sentences. There are some offences for which custody is the only penalty... But there is a raft of offences, including theft, burglary and deception, where the sentencer has a choice between custody and community penalties."

Ms Lord said many women who were currently receiving community punishments were being made to do physical work, such as painting and decorating, which had been primarily designed for male offenders.

The Prison Reform Trust report found that 45 per cent of women in prison had dependent children and 25 per cent were lone parents. Only 13 per cent had committed crimes of violence. The study found that 70 per cent of women prisoners were in custody for the first time and that female inmates were more prone to depression, self-harm and suicide attempts than male prisoners.

Lord Hurd, trust chairman and former home secretary, said: "Women in prison are people who the system has failed time and again."

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