Football clubs are linking up with prisons to offer coaching – and hope | Football
David Dein visited HMP Holme House in Stockton-on-Tees last month. It was a significant landmark for Dein, the former vice-chairman of Arsenal and the FA, and one of the people responsible for the creation of the richest league in world football. In the last six years he has visited all 118 prisons in England and Wales. If there was a groundhopper badge for prisons, Dein would be a fully paid-up member of the 118 club.
Dein has been interested in the role football can play in prisoners’ rehabilitation for some time and now he is heading up a project that aims to reduce the chances of prisoners re-offending after their release. The rate of recidivism in the UK is alarmingly high, with 64% of prisoners re-offending within a year of being released. Allied to this, England and Wales have the highest incarceration rates in western Europe, with a total prison population of more than 85,000. That cycle of re-offending costs the country £15bn a year – more than £35,000 per prisoner.
When launching the Twinning Project, Dein said: “Football can be a powerful force for good and the Twinning Project will use this to help people change their lives when they are released from prison.” One of Dein’s former players at Arsenal, Ian Wright, was the master of ceremonies at the launch. When he was 19 and had not yet signed his first professional contract at Crystal Palace, Wright was sent to Chelmsford Prison for two weeks after he failed to pay driving offences, an experience he calls his own “wake-up call”.
The Twinning Project link prisons with their local football clubs, who provide regular sessions, leadership courses and basic refereeing courses for inmates. The main objective is to improve the self-esteem of prisoners and help them gain employment, as only 17% enter the workplace upon their release. Some clubs have also committed to offering prisoners job opportunities, in catering or stewarding, for example.
The project is building on work a few clubs have been doing for some time. “A handful of clubs were engaging with prisons independently without any coordination with each other,” says Dein. “Also, for the six clubs that were delivering some form of programme, there are another 86 who are not doing any. So I felt that the consistent, replicable and sustainable delivery of meaningful programmes was what was sorely needed.”
Thirty-six clubs have signed up so far. They range from the mightiest – such as European champions Liverpool, league champions Manchester City and Europa League champions Chelsea – to some of the more modest, with Bury the latest to start a coaching programme at HMP Forrest Banks and Notts County coming on board despite their relegation from League Two to the National League. The funding for the programme comes almost exclusively from the clubs’ community foundations. With the endorsement of all the country’s leading football authorities – the Premier League, the EFL, the FA, PFA, LMA and PGMOL – the project has considerable heft.
Dein’s former club Arsenal have linked up with HMP Downview, a women’s prison in Surrey. Female prisoners make up around 5% of the total prison population, with about 4,500 currently in custody, and they are four times more likely to self-harm than male prisoners, something Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform calls “an epidemic of self-mutilation” in women’s prisons.
Arsenal are delivering a six-week programme to 12 prisoners, which includes weekly workshops in the classroom and on the football pitch. The course focuses on helping prisoners develop leadership skills, form positive relationships, understand the laws of the game and build their technical football skills.
Jamie, one of the women on the programme, says it has been “a great highlight in my life – I have really enjoyed it to the full, reaping more benefits than I expected to gain. Not only the physical side, but the coaching side. Helping me gain positive life skills, more confidence, self-esteem and focus. All of this with my favourite football team. This project is brilliant and it really has brought some positivity in my life. I just wish it was on for longer as I would love to do more of it.”
Dein is clearly excited about the progress he is seeing at Downview. “One said ‘it’s the first time I have smiled in months’. Another who had a lengthy history of self-harm, which is an acute problem in women’s prisons, said the course had kept her from self-harming and the third referred to the Arsenal lead coach Tom Hartley as ‘actually the first male I feel I can trust’ because he built such a positive relationship with those on the course.” Hartley says the seven weeks he spent at Downview were the most rewarding he had experienced in 18 years of coaching.
Jason Swettenham, who joined the prison service in 1992 and now is in charge of physical education within prisons, wants more clubs to sign up to the scheme. “When David goes in to give his talk, he deals in hope,” Swettenham says. “And that is what is in short supply across the prison system. That’s what this project delivers. Hope.”