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How rugby can help men in prison turn their lives around
3Pillars Project says rugby equips men in prison with vital skills to turn their lives around.

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Life lessons from the rugby pitch

This is a guest post by Jennifer Mustoe-Castle, Chief Operating Officer of 3Pillars Project.

3Pillars Project charity provides sports-based mentoring to young men within the criminal justice system. Typically, a young man’s involvement begins with Rugby Academy in prison. 

 ‘feeling young, being able to run around in the rain, make friends and have fun, this course is like having the childhood I never had’ , 20 year-old Dilon

 Dilon was serving time at a prison in the Midlands when he first came across what was a new sport to him, rugby. Like most men we work with, he’d never played the sport. In fact, a young man who’d been through the police, courts and prisons system hadn’t experienced play of any kind in his childhood. To run, chase, laugh and throw and catch a ball were something he’d never done as a boy.

Dilon is one of 300 men and boys who have been through our programmes in prison and in the community over 5 years (this month marks our fifth anniversary as a charity). What I notice, especially as the mum of a small child, is how vital the opportunity to play is for those we provide sports training and mentoring to. For Dilon and so many like him, ‘play’ is new. 

It’s well recognised that rugby offers a structured outlet for energy; a space for young men to practise controlled emotions. Rugby players learn to manage conflict and frustration; they  develop discipline, resilience, and teamwork. For many, rugby is a new way to interpret and express masculinity. In the often tense environment behind bars rugby offers valuable skills for self-regulation. These are precisely the skills many need to tackle the challenges of life after prison too.

The value of play

Back to ‘play’ – why do I say it’s so important to young men who’ve found themselves locked up? Well, because for many young people in our prisons, like Dilon, a broken home life, neglect or deprivation mean they were forced to skip this fundamental stepping stone for personal development. It can create a significant gap. 

It’s proven that play improves cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and young people. Through play, children learn about the world and themselves. They learn skills for study, work and relationships, such as confidence and resilience.

That’s why running around in the rain, having a laugh matters. Why play is part of the rehabilitation story.

Covid and stability in an unstable environment

Coming back into prisons post-Covid has presented its own challenges. After a longer, more extreme lockdown, most prisons are slowly re-establishing activities inside so that external organisations like 3Pillars and others offering valuable educational skills-building can come in and do what we’re set up for.

Understaffing is the enemy of rehabilitation. Lack of prison staff – the sheer fact a certain number of officers are needed to safely and securely host our courses means we can only operate where staff numbers allow. Thankfully, in the last few months we’re now able to run rugby courses in six prisons across the country.

Meantime, in post-pandemic prisons, segregation has become more common as a means to manage volatile situations, control behaviour and protect vulnerable people during understaffing. A principle we hold dear is that we welcome diverse groups to take part in our course, including those unable to settle into other programmes, those with varying sentence lengths, and behaviour levels. We don’t calculate who’s going to do our reoffending statistics the most favours.

If a young man comes with a troubled record in prison (or indeed long reoffending history) we will work with him, unless there’s a really good reason not to. Take Jaf for example, a young man in a London prison, he’s spent the past few months in solitary confinement (segregation),

“This course has given me a way to stay stable in a really unstable environment. I’ve finally been able to leave segregation and found friends on the course who have supported me to be placed on a new wing”.

I can’t talk about life lessons from the rugby pitch without mentioning mentoring, the hidden weapon in our arsenal. If you’re reading this, chances are you don’t need telling how difficult rebuilding a life outside is after prison. The stubborn national reoffending rates of 30% speak for themselves. A mentor stays alongside a trainee for as long as required. Time limits don’t work.

Take Miguel for instance, he did his Release on Temporary License placement (day release) with us in 2020 after 8 years in prison. He shadowed our team, took on the assistant coaching role, and completed several courses whilst on placement. On release we knew he was the perfect candidate to help run our London coaching programmes; Miguel’s built a programme that’s not only a place to get fit and healthy, but, as crucially, a way to be alongside supportive, new friends.

Always there

For some men their mentor (typically, someone with their own firsthand experience of the justice system or ex-service personnel with their own resettlement experience, or a sports expert) might be a rare adult figure they can depend on to support them as they navigate the challenges of housing, family, work on release. Someone they develop a relationship with and help with building empathy for others.

Just knowing he’s there, always there whatever is going on in my life,’ former trainee and now coach Larry said recently.   

We all know rugby has a reputation for being male dominated and here I am, a young woman and mother, coaching young men in what can be a tough environment. I’m often asked how do you cope? I can honestly say, I learn just as much from them as they do from me. Prison is a melting pot, full of people who don’t need saving, but who do need someone to believe in them. At some point in our lives we’ve all needed that person, without them our lives would no doubt be quite different. It’s that simple.

So, leaving stereotypes of all kinds off the pitch is essential to our rehabilitation work. Assumptions that young men have played in childhood, not just the sport of rugby, but around the park, must be set aside.

Prisons are currently experiencing especially challenging times. We’re not expecting a magic wand any time soon. At 3Pillars, rehabilitation is the name of our game; that means continuing to provide stability in unstable environments.   

For more information on our work in prison and beyond see 3Pillars Project website here


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