Don't let the neighbours find out

How do you reform sex offenders? Can they be reformed at all? Shirl Marshall thinks they can and her

If the neighbours in the adjoining bungalows were peering out from behind their net curtains on Saturday, they would have thought that Shirl, that nice but colourful woman at number 13, was having another family party. It was an everyday suburban scene in a pleasant patchwork of culs-de-sac in Middle England, the sort of event to send John Major into raptures about warm beer, cricket and old ladies on bikes. But appearances can be deceptive. Only two of 70-year-old Shirl Marshall's guests were actually related to her. The other half-dozen were among the most despised men in the country.

They are what Marshall calls her "Consequences family". Consequences is the charity she set up eight years ago to continue what has been half a lifetime of work with serious offenders, many of them convicted of sex crimes. Hundreds of prisoners have turned to her during that time as someone who believes that, despite the enormity of their offences, they can still be reformed. Some of her "boys" - as she refers to them - even come to stay in her home. It is unorthodox and some experts would say it is dangerous, but it appears to work. To her knowledge, only two of her boys have reoffended. "I go against the grain," she reflects, "and refuse to condemn these men as monsters. For me, they are human beings."

Tom and John were among those at the party. They were staying overnight in Marshall's annex, a converted garage. Tom raped his 14-year-old stepdaughter. John committed a similar crime against his daughter. Both have now served prison sentences and are on the sex offenders' register for life.

Most articles at this point would include a description of their subject and a few details to afford a sense of place. With Shirl Marshall, that is impossible. It would be giving the game away. There can be no photograph, in case anyone recognises her, and no hint of where she lives, for fear of inciting vigilantes like those who stalked our streets two summers ago searching for paedophiles.

The charity is not a one-woman band. There are others in the team doing administration and the finances, and Marshall is training two workers to follow in her footsteps. However, it remains very much her baby. Its work starts in prison. Referrals all come through word of mouth.

"I write first and make sure they know I'm unofficial, not linked to the probation service or anything like that," says Marshall. "And I send them a photograph of myself. I have to begin by showing them trust if they are ever to trust me.

"My first question is, 'What did you do?' My reputation is for being straightforward. They nearly always tell me. Then, over the course of our meetings, I will ask them about their memories of being a child - the first thing they remember, the first time they were hurt. That always gets you deeper.

"I don't have a set programme," Marshall says, "but I do always make sure that I touch them - on the arm or shoulder . . . No one wants to touch a sex offender. I break down that barrier."

It is not a one-way process. "They will question me, too," she says. "Like: 'What the hell are you doing here?' And that is when I tell them about my experience." Marshall has experienced within her own family the devastation that sex offenders can cause. "It was the most painful period of my life," she recalls. Although she tells those she visits how it happened, she does not want to make the details public, in order to protect the others involved. She is, however, unabashed in describing its impact. "I got to a point where I decided that the pain could either eat away at me for ever, or I could grab it and use it positively. I'm a firm believer that it is not what happens to you: it's what you do with it. I couldn't give people what they need if I hadn't lived the life I've lived. I wouldn't have the resources to do it. I wouldn't know how they feel."

For a woman who clearly enjoys talking, a lot of her time with sex offenders is spent listening. "You have to understand the mind of the man [all but two of her clients have been men]. I trained over many years with a very distinguished prison psychiatrist. He taught me, 'Listen to the offender, because he can tell you much.' It's so true. Out it all comes. They know it never goes any further. When you have trouble in the heart, it comes to a bursting point. The result takes different forms - sex attacks, murder, violence."

Often, the stories that she hears will flag up unhappy family issues, so there is a logic to how Marshall has shaped her charity to help those she has met inside prisons once they are released. She wraps them in the warm embrace of the Consequences family. For many, it is the only family they have left.

Tom and John, for instance, left behind homes, families and jobs when they went into jail. Now released, they have no contacts, no work and nothing but a bedsit. Aside from Marshall, their probation officer is their only adult contact and he or she is most likely a distant figure whose main task is to impose restrictions - about where they might find work, because of the risk of young people being present; over what times they can use public transport, so as to avoid schoolchildren.

There are three, interwoven aspects to the work of Consequences. The first relates to anger management. "The number of times I have calls and one of the boys is on the end of the line after a bad day, saying: 'Shirl, will it never, ever go away?' And I have to be straight with them. 'No, it won't,' I tell them. 'The world will remain hostile. The police will call on you regularly. You will struggle to get a job. And that will make you very, very angry.' Often probation officers are hostile - though often just to test released sex offenders, to see how they are coping, but I believe it is a harmful way of going about it. And so I am there at the end of the phone - and, when needed, in person - trying to defuse that anger, to stop them slipping back into offending."

The second leg of Marshall's programme is her attempt to reintegrate her "boys" in everyday life. She accompanies them to the supermarket, talks them through cooking, budgeting, getting the gas turned on: all the dreary domestic things that they find difficult and stressful. At core, however, the focus is on showing them love and acceptance. "I give them lots of hugs, good food. Feeding is therapeutic. Being loved is phenomenally therapeutic."

Some come to stay with her when she feels they need it. "It's only a small number whom I invite into my home, and only at the end of a long process of working together and filtering out. But, for me, if you do something, you do it properly."

And the final aspect of the Consequences programme is to help released sex offenders continue to confront what they have done. "I don't force them to talk," says Marshall, "but it comes up. I can tell by instinct which areas they are unsure of, or angry about. When we are on our own, often late at night, sitting around the kitchen table, I will bring things up. Sometimes I have to say to them, 'I think you have a long way to go,' but everyone travels at different rates. The courage they need is huge."

Watching her interact with the members of her Consequences family at the party - "Please don't miss out that there is no alcohol here otherwise people will think I don't know what I'm doing" - it is ultimately the reassuring ordinariness of the living-room scene that is most striking, though ordinary is an odd word to use about Marshall's guests, or indeed Marshall herself. Her son-in-law, as he proffers a plate of mini-sausages, describes her to me as "an antiquated punk with attitude". She has been married five times and she has a tribe of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of her husbands was behind bars when she met him and is still inside, but they have now parted. She has also written to and visited men on death row in the United States.

To the sex offenders she works with, Marshall's life story allows her to claim that in some ways she is an outsider like them. Others in the prison world, however, see her history as evidence that she is simply fascinated by wicked men. She chuckles at the suggestion. "It's true that for some women there's nothing so attractive as a man in chains, but what interests me is something much more rational. Why did these men do what they did? And anyway, many of them regard me as more of a mother figure - often the mother figure they never had - rather than anything else."

It is the combination of the emotional and the rational that seems to be at the heart of Consequences' extraordinary record of success. It stands outside the system and makes its own rules. Its results, however, are a direct rebuke to all those who take as read the current orthodoxy that sex offenders will always offend again. That it poses such uncomfortable questions may explain why the charity has received so little recognition, save last year for a Longford award, one of the prizes given in memory of another iconoclast on the subject of the human capacity to reform, Lord Longford.

For Shirl Marshall, the fascination of her work is that it takes place on what she calls "the edge" - or more precisely, with people who are suffering on the edge. Again, it dates back to her own experience of the damage done to her family by a sex offender. "When once you've been to the edge of the circle in which we live, you know it is there and you've got to keep going back. You can't live in the middle when you know the edge is there."

You can contact Consequences by e-mail: Shirl@consequences.free-online.co.uk or by writing c/o P O Box 82, NR31 9XA