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Counsellor Sophia Young: “We work with women who have 15 - 20 year drug problems”

Acupuncture and her heroin
Of all the ideas for stopping addicts injecting themselves with heroin, acupuncture has to be one of the most unlikely. Yet a project in Glasgow is encouraging women offenders to try it, as a way of acquiring the peace of mind needed to kick hard drugs.

Instead of injecting themselves with heroin, the women have acupuncture needles inserted into their ears. Those offenders who have tried it say it does help them to achieve a relaxed mental state, reducing the level of stress that has built up because of their use of drugs.

The technique is being used by Turnaround, a Glasgow-based project that offers help to women who have resorted to crime to finance their drug habits. Many of these women have been in and out of Scotland's courts and prisons for repeated offences of shoplifting or prostitution. Acupuncture is just part of an intensive programme of support offered by Turnaround to women offenders with drug problems.

Surprisingly, some heroin users are initially reluctant to have needles stuck into them. But Sophia Young, a counsellor with Turnaround is in no doubt about the benefits of this form of alternative therapy.

"It produces in the person a state of relaxation, a withdrawal from craving. They are alert and they don't have to use drugs to achieve that," she says. "For people who are in states of constant anxiety, when they are not completely smashed out of their brains on heroin, that is a unique experience. That is how it works" she says.

In addition to providing support for women offenders who are in custody, and after their release from prison, Turnaround has piloted a scheme to stop them going to court in the first place.

Medication and support

The procurator fiscal (the prosecutor in the Scottish criminal justice system) has the discretion to place a woman into an intensive programme aimed at reducing their drug use and their offending behaviour. The first part is medication. Women are offered a substitute for their illegal drugs - methadone instead of heroin, and Diazepam to replace their street-bought Valium. This is followed by intensive one-to-one support and group sessions, at which the women's social problems are discussed.

"We will look at housing issues, all the social issues contributing to her distress at the moment, and try and help her find problem-solving ways out of it," says Sophia Young.

Among the women referred to Turnaround is Denise, a 28-year-old Glasgow prostitute who has been using heroin for 10 years, and was facing a court appearance for soliciting. She knows she has been given the opportunity to turn her back on drugs and prostitution and stay out of jail.

"It's brilliant," she says. "If I do this successfully then the charges are dropped at the end of it. I had a slip last week, but apart from that, I've managed to cut out my heroin use altogether, and I am sticking to my methadone here."

Hitting rock bottom

Turnaround helps around 500 women a year, among them some of the most vulnerable in the city.

Most inject heroin or take Diazepam orally. They live in poor accommodation and many have lost custody of their children. Half the women who attend to Turnaround have mental health problems such as depression and many continue to be at risk physically.

In a recent check on 33 women who had previously taken part in the programme, it was found that: one had been murdered, two had been kidnapped and held prisoner, nine had been raped and eight had attempted suicide.

Yet for those who are offered a place on the programme, the prospect of staying out of court and out of jail is a powerful incentive to change their lives. According to Turnaround two-thirds of the offenders who start the programme go on to complete it successfully.

"Success for us is that they attend more than 60% of the appointments, they reduce their illegal drug use substantially, and they reduce their offending behaviour substantially," says Sophia Young. "We work with women who have 15 - 20 year drug problems who have committed crime for a very long time. This is quite an unusual rate of success with such a challenging group."

Given its own experience of helping offenders to stay out of prison, Turnaround is supporting the planned introduction of drug courts into the Scottish legal system. When an offender comes before the court they are likely to be given a simple choice - accept a treatment programme or go to prison.

"If someone has got a problem with substance abuse, then treat the problem and they won't need to offend, or they'll offend much less," argues Sophia Young. "That's what we try to achieve. We feel it's an effective way of treating the problem rather than just locking these women away for a few months and then having them come back out with the same problem intact."

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