Natasha HenryComment

Finding A Future Through Football

Natasha HenryComment

Never underestimate football's power to heal, bond, and change people. A huge welcome to IBWM for Natasha Henry.

As an Arsenal fan I was looking forward to seeing Ian Wright involved with football again in the show 'Football Behind Bars'.  But I came away thinking about more than Wrighty's impressive vocabulary.   I changed the channel thinking this might actually be an innovative idea, as opposed to just another celebrity helping out the little people.

Taking people in prison, people who spend their lives in a confined space, and using football to show them that there may just be another way to live their life.  Giving them the opportunity to learn both life and social skills that they can use when they return to a non controlled life.  Maybe showing them something in themselves they didn't know they had in order for them to make the positive step of not re-offending.

Portland Youth Offenders Institute, where the show is based houses 483 prisoners and as it has a full-time PE Academy it seemed the obvious choice for the start of Wrighty's scheme.  Along with two of Chelsea Football Club's community coaches and the backing of 'some' of the prison staff the scheme commenced.  The plan was to hold trials and pick the best 22 to become a squad; these 22 were then moved to another wing where they lived, slept and ate together, as well as some form of physical training every day.  The wing they resided on was far more basic then some of them were used to but they realised that to be a part of this amazing opportunity, they had to sacrifice things such as tv's, stereo's and comfortable beds.

Admittedly the first few weeks were tricky but with help from anger management consultants and psychologists, they helped to extract a lot of the anger these boys are bred with.  It was heartening to see Wrighty building personal relationships with the players and advising them on ways to conduct themselves as well as conrol their behaivour.  Many of the boys natural instincts were to resort to verbal or physical violence in the cauldron that is a prison.  But as the scheme progressed Deputy Governor, David Bourne stated: “They've responded well to the challenges they've been set and we've seen improvements in their individual behaviour.”

As someone who was in trouble in his younger years and having spent some time in prison, Wrighty  relates to them in a manner that no politician ever could.  I mean, what could David Cameron or Nick Clegg say to some of these young men?  They have no idea about the childhoods some of these boys have suffered, nor the lengths they've had to go to just to maintain basic living standards.  Currently 25% of youths in prison have suffered violence at home while up to 49% have been in local authority care.   Of course, not all of them are angels, Portland houses some of the most dangerous young men in the country but young men aren't born into criminals, it all has to start somewhere.

That's not to say Wrighty's scheme was welcomed by all the prison staff, some felt the inmates were being rewarded for bad behaviour.  Some were worried about the message this sent out to the victims of their crimes.  All valid points of course.  They didn't see that the plan was to help the boys to stop re-offending; you have to look to the future and make sure they don't fall into bad habits as you can't turn back time.  England has one of the highest youth offending rates amongst its' young men so maybe trying something different will help to buck the country's unfortunate trend.

Wrighty's is not the first scheme of it's kind here or abroad.  Charlton Athletic's Community Trust is linked with the physical education department of Cookham Wood Youth Offenders Institute, a course which focuses on football as well as teaching various AQA awards.  Skills that can be used to help them return to college or apply for jobs following their release.  One former student, Solomon Akinshade, is now studying for an NVQ in Sport; he is continually mentored through the Trust's 'Through the Gate' policy which supports and advises him both personally and professionally.

Cookham Wood Trust Co-ordinator, Simon Hodge, says: “The trust can deliver FA Level 1 qualifications, so it’s certainly something Solomon can work towards. If he achieves this qualification then potential employment may be achieved.”

South Africa Robben Island, the prison that held Nelson Mandela for 27 years also had it's own sports and recreation unit for prisoners; set up by Sedick Issacs who was then an inmate.  He introduced sports such as rugby, tennis, football and their own version of the Summer Olympics.  They created their own football league with nine teams and three divisions based on skill; they were even given an honorary FIFA membership in 2007.  They even had their own referee's union and agreed to play according to FIFA's international rules.  It gave the prisoners a chance to learn new skills and aid the way they interacted with others.

Currently, of the 7,739 convicted young men in prison (August 2010) over two thirds of these (72%) are likely to re-offend according to government statistics.  Of those 82% are expected to return to prison within two years of their release.  When researched it was found some of the reasons for this was poor housing, money problems and instability.  With many citing their lack of education and inability to obtain any kind of employment as the trigger.

No one is saying that these young men should be given an easy ride or that they shouldn't be punished or serve time for their crimes, but surely anything that decreases the number of them that re-offend is surely something that would benefit every last one of us.  Sending these young men back onto the streets without any guidance, support or direction is clearly not working.  Using something such as sport to nurture what is hidden underneath the bravado, is definitely another idea to throw into the hat.

I'll leave you with a statement from the Chelsea coach, David Gill: “The project shows the power of football to engage young people from all different backgrounds.”

Natasha's excellent blog can be found here while to follow her on twitter, you simply need to click here