A NATIONALLY acclaimed initiative which helped vulnerable prisoners at risk of self-harm at a North-East jail has been closed after running out of funds, The Northern Echo has learnt.

The Learning Shop, run by charity New Bridge at HMP Low Newton, in Brasside near Durham City, was set up ten years ago with the aim of improving women’s mental health and well being through learning.

It is understood to have been supported with funding from the European Union Social Fund and was staffed by the charity and volunteers.

A testimony on the New Bridge website from ‘Sue’ - a prolific self-harmer who was formerly held at Low Newton - said the initiative was a “godsend” and described how it had transformed her life.

The drop-in facility is described by the charity as providing a “safe, calm stress free welcoming and supportive environment which helps some of the most vulnerable prisoners in the country grow in confidence and develop life skills”.

Low Newton is a closed women’s prison which houses adult prisoners and young offenders.

Its occupants include notorious serial killer Rose West, who has her own cell in a special segregation wing.

Tracey Connelly, the mother of the toddler known as Baby P, who died having suffered more than 50 injuries, was also housed at Low Newton until her release from an indefinite jail sentence last year.

Leading criminologist Professor David Wilson, who is vice chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform and a former prison governor, said the Learning Shop was one of only a few such initiatives in the country aimed at helping women who self harm.

Writing on Twitter, Prof Wilson, who is a Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, said: “It’s tragic that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) have let the Learning Shop close for lack of funds.

“What is NOMS going to do now to tackle self-harming at the jail?”

NOMS – part of the Ministry of Justice – said that although the facility was no longer being funded, similar support would still be available.

A spokesman for HMP Low Newton said: "We are building on the good work done by New Bridge to help female prisoners deal with their offending behaviour and turn their lives around.

"The personal and social skills which New Bridge supported women to develop continue to be delivered by the prison and our partner agencies."

The Northern Echo contacted London-based New Bridge for a comment, but none was forthcoming ahead of publication.