The scene has been re-played countless times outside prisons across Scotland and is depressingly familiar to officials and organisations charged with trying to make the departure from custody a one-way route.

"Quite often, the first person a prisoner meets outside the gates is not a family member or someone supportive. It's their drug dealer. After that, it is the pub or a trip to the bookies," said one rehabilitation expert.

Despite the success of some initiatives inside jails aimed at tackling offending behaviour - and the commitment of inmates to change their ways - all too often these are undermined by the reality of landing back in a community where circumstances and the everyday pressures of life make crime the most obvious solution to their problems.

It is a situation that is acknowledged by Laurie Russell, chief executive of the Wise Group, a charity that aims to tackle social exclusion. For the past year and a half, it has been operating an innovative pilot scheme aimed at getting former prisoners into work and training.

"Research shows there are two main factors in preventing former prisoners being sent back to jail: integration with their families and securing a job," Mr Russell said.

"A large proportion of the prison population is serving short sentences, going through a revolving door in and out of prison on a regular basis. The prison service is looking for a way of trying to reduce reoffending and integrate those people back into the their communities and families."

In a unique move, Routes Out of Prison, which has been developed with the help of £1m Scottish Government funding and in collaboration with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), has employed former prisoners or those with experience of prison as mentors - or "life coaches" - to help people recently out of jail.

Initially, the life coaches make contact with prisoners while they are still in custody and agree to help them on the outside. The problems they face typically include addiction problems, family disputes and problems coping with financial debt - all recognised triggers for returning to crime. If necessary, they will meet them outside the prison gates on their release.

It has operated so far at three prisons: Barlinnie, Polmont and Cornton Vale, targeting people who have been jailed for low-level crimes and are on a treadmill of short-term custodial sentences.

But those behind the scheme are hoping that its initial funding, which is due to run out in March, will be extended till December. They have also applied for Big Lottery funding to roll it out nationally, so every prisoner in Scotland is given access to a life coach if he or she wants it.

While the project is yet to be formally evaluated - there are three such analyses under way - initial signs are encouraging.

Last year it was praised by Andrew McLellan, Scotland's chief inspector of prisons, in his annual report. It has also been officially recognised by the Butler Trust, set up to reward good practice is prisons.

Though the effect of the scheme on reducing re-offending rates is not yet known, there is some evidence that it has had success in getting people into work.

Between August 2006 and December 2007, more than 1500 people registered for the scheme, of whom 734 have engaged in contact with support workers outside prison. Around 21% of those have ended up in training or employment - more than twice the rate for other prisoners, according to government figures.

That success rate appears to have improved significantly in the last months of last year with the introduction of employment consultants who work specifically to place people in jobs. Since then, an average of 21 people have been placed in work or training a month between August and December last year.

The scheme is not cheap - £1.2m over the first two years - but Mr Russell reckons it provides value for money. Given that the bill for putting someone in jail is more than £600 a day, that adds up to less than three days inside for each prisoner who has gone through the scheme.

"We know from the statistics we have that we have got a higher proportion of people into work than if they were left to their own devices," he said.

"We did a cost analysis of the directly attributable costs of prison - not including secondary things like the cost to society and the impact on communities and families, just the cost of paying for benefits, staying in prison and court appearances. Over five years, that added up to more than £900,000 for an individual."

Mr Russell says the scheme has seen a culture shift within the prison service and won over governors and others who have traditionally been reluctant about employing former prisoners in any official capacity.

Bill McKinlay, the governor of HM Barlinnie, acknowledged that attitudes had changed within the prison service and praised the achievement of the pilot scheme. He said: "The majority of prisoners want to go back to their families, get a job and stabilise their lives. But unless you tackle the networks that exist outside, you won't change much as an individual."

He said there was a gap in support for people immediately upon leaving jail: "Where that is identified, it is important to build a bridge between prison and the community to which people are returning. A number of prisoners have that support; some don't."

The Scottish Government and SPS are both awaiting formal evaluation before deciding whether to invest in the long-term running of the project.

A government spokesman praised the "important work" the project was undertaking with ex-offenders. He said: "The Justice Secretary is determined to break Scotland's cycle of criminality which is being passed on through the generations. Currently too many prisoners are caught in the revolving door' of short-term prison sentences."

Sir Clive Fairweather, the former chief inspector of prisons and trustee of the Butler Trust, said Routes Out of Prison provided an example of how prisoners' lives could be changed for the better. He said: "This isn't in any way about being nice' to prisoners. It's about making sure that, when they leave prison, they don't come back. The revolving door we have at the moment comes at an enormous cost to society, to the public purse, and to prisoners themselves."

It's easy to get stuck in that cycle'

"I'VE been going to prison since I was old enough to go to prison." For the first 12 years of his adult life, Reg Hall spent time in and out of jail on a string of sentences for drug-related crimes.

Each release into the community proved to be nothing more than an intermission.

Eight years after he broke that cycle, having tackled his drug problems at the age of 30, he knows how easy it is to be trapped in the "revolving door" of prison life.

"As soon as I addressed my addiction problems, a lot of positive things came into my life," says Reg, who now works as a "life coach" helping other former prisoners.

"It's very easy to get stuck in that cycle. I think of breaking away from that as giving me some choice, giving me my life back. Nobody chooses to be living that way. I choose to live the way I live now."

For Michelle McCulloch, 41, visiting prison has been part and parcel of her life since she was young. First it was to see her brother, who was in and out of prison for a series of drug-related, minor offences. Later, it was to visit her husband and stepson, Derek, who was jailed for his part in a murder in 1993.

After being released from a seven-year sentence, Derek was stabbed to death in 2001. His father committed suicide four years ago.

Despite the tragedies of her own life, Michelle, who tackled her own drug problem before becoming a life coach, has a determinedly positive outlook, which she believes can influence people emerging from prison.

She says of the turning point in her own life: "I had hit rock bottom and I had to get it together, for my daughter and for myself. I suppose I can speak the same language as the people coming out of prison because I've been through a lot of those things myself."