In April, I spoke at the Cambridge University Science fair alongside Cambridge University Neuroscience experts. We spoke about the Pros & Cons of playing rugby.
On the journey to create 3 Pillars Project and get it up and running, I have been incredibly lucky to gain the support of some fantastic people. Not least, Bex Norris and Will McLay who are the backbones of the organisation and have proven themselves over and over again.
But, it's not just business partners and fellow coaches who have offered help because of the need they see in society to channel and influence the aggression of young men, and give fractured communities greater support. I have been lucky in the support and advice of many others....even a Royal.
Prince Harry gave me his time to advise how to make the 3 Pillars idea into a reality. He gave me some important advice which I will share another time. However, 18 months on, we have the great team I mentioned, we are going from strength to strength and will have worked intensively with 60 young men in prison in our first year of delivery. I am proud of the tight community of support that has gathered around the project; I know we would not be as strong as we are without them.
We feature in this important article addressing masculinity, anger and identity crisis; especially for young men in society and prison who require support...
3 Pillars Project Rugby Academy host Barnes Rugby Club vets in a rugby match at HMP Wormwood Scrubs:
Why it should bother you...
Security is the most essential human need, nowhere more so than in prisons. The news is awash with stories of prison violence, the wide extent of drug use and fear has become suddenly apparent to a nation that prides itself on its liberal tradition of treating people humanely and the rule of law. Looking at the current reports of the prison system, I am reminded of my tours of Afghanistan and the theories that drove Britain’s work their; ‘without security, nothing will flourish’. The same is true in prisons; unless prisons are safe rehabilitation is not possible.
Whilst anyone might expect a concentration of people convicted of crime to be a more intimidating and a less forgiving environment, that is all the more reason why prison violence is so unacceptable. The risk of prisoners committing violent acts is no surprise, which is why it is so essential that the government equip prisons with the right people and resources to create safe environments.
Over the past three years, prison violence has increased rapidly; serious assaults in prison have more than doubled in the last 3 years. There were 2197 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults and 625 serious assaults on staff in 2015 (Prison Reform Trust). You don’t have to dig too hard to understand the causes of prison violence. The rise in violence has mirrored the reduction in prison officer numbers, veteran officers have been replaced by twenty somethings on low pay and the proliferation of psychoactive substances seeks to deepen this crisis.
Whilst prison officer numbers affect the likelihood of violent occurrences, the underlying causes of violence in prison remain behavioural; personal conflict is driven by frustration, poor self-discipline, low self-esteem and an inability to manage conflict. Men locked up for hours and hours lash out and are subsequently locked up for longer as punishment. It is a vicious circle and although I am not a psychologist, I am certain that the effects of surviving and living in such an environment are traumatic and long-lasting. Men are deepening the troubles that sent them to prison in the first place.
There are other causes of prison violence of course; gangs & prison economies create turf wars, gangs fight for the control of smuggling/dealing/supply of contraband. I will discuss our encounters with gang networks in a later blog, but without the necessarily strong levels of security in prisons, it is impossible to counter gang proliferation and the supply of drugs.
I am often confronted in conversation by people who advocate the ‘prisoners deserve all they get’ line of thinking. That solitary confinement for a period of several months is the best start to a sentence; that they should be broken. But these approaches are proven not to work. As a society, it is not in our interest to pursue such strategies because it just releases men back onto the streets who will commit more crime; currently 48% of prisoners reoffend within a year.
The reality I find of men in prison is quite different to the media's portrayal of the 'evil criminal'. Not all, but many prisoners suffer from a raft a complex needs that society, our culture, their families, communities, schools and the state have failed to address. I find personality disorders untreated, cripplingly low self-esteem, unacceptable levels of illiteracy and men in the middle of their lives who have made quite serious mistakes, but with the best of intention, do not have the support or know how to fix things and move forward.
The Justice Secretary has inherited one tremendous challenge, but creating a safe and secure environment is the starting point for all further progress. With safety, prisons can properly engage with prisoners. If we don’t, the cycle continues. 65% of the sons of prisoners will themselves go to prison. What the statistics suggest is the urgency that we must engage before this cycle of violence and offending spins out of control. But perhaps most importantly for you the reader, if we don't address the violence blighting the prison system, released men are more likely to commit crime on release - this is a truth that should bother us all.
2016 INVICTUS Gold Medallist Al Krol talks about his determination to overcome adversity. Al's disability has not stopped him achieving, and he brings this experience to our work in prison:
‘What are you going to do when you leave?’ It’s a question that everyone hears as they make their way for the exit from military service.
Much has been written and understood about this 'transition'. Even the term makes it into a military process. Yet, for some it is akin to the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). The world is quite different on the other side of the fence. I have found myself working in a place I never would imagine, I have gone from serving in the Royal Tank Regiment to prison.
Not in prison in the convicted sense, although the departure from the structure, camaraderie and security of Army life to civilian employment can be a huge challenge for many; some Army leavers will end up in prison.
Instead I have found a new challenge by establishing 3 Pillars Project, working within the criminal justice system to provide positive role models through rugby coaching courses. Using excellence in sport and military leadership, we focus on three pillars of exercise, education and ethos as a foundation for effective rehabilitation. We offer long-term support to all course graduates and are committed to empowering individuals' potential to make a positive contribution to society in the future, regardless of their past.
Getting to this point has not been a simple process however. I am on my fourth job since leaving the Army, but I have gained something from each one. 75% of Army leavers change job in the first year. This is something to be considered by anyone pursuing resettlement. A wise man would 'skill up' but not keep his focus narrow, sometimes you have to put in the graft on something you do not enjoy to get to your dream job. Or, as I have found, your most rewarding work can be found in an unexpected place.
To develop financial understanding, one of my 4 jobs was an internship at a bank. I thought that a year working hard there would look very good on the CV. This didn't suit my more independent side. Before that, I did a short stint of work experience for a politician. It taught me that the army endows us with a huge range of skills and we should pitch ourselves competitively against civilian equivalents. Finally, I worked as a youth mentor and tutor; akin to Mary Poppins in trousers.
Perhaps what leaving the 3 jobs suggests, is that if I was to walk away from the many good things the Army offers, you must get some reward in a new job. I sought meaning. For me it lay in the autonomy of running a new social enterprise and helping others in a tight spot.
And that's how I ended up working in prison. I have settled on the route to becoming a social entrepreneur. In 2015 I started a social enterprise, 3 Pillars Project; using the skills we learn in the Army to engage young men in prison to engage with education, sport and work and turn away from crime. I found that all that we learn as NCOs or Officers has huge applicability to a people focused role of prison based mentoring. Having met a young 16-year-old serving a prison sentence, I was struck by how much this boy could have benefitted from the purpose that the Army gives young men. Perhaps he still could, I have met amazing soldiers that have served time prior to the Army.
This month we start our second prison based course teaching 15 prisoners how to play rugby. The true impact of the course is far greater. By teaching them a new skill, teamwork and giving them value, they are filled with self-belief. It sounds incredibly similar to what the Army does for many young men. We have developed a partnership with the Royal Tank Regiment to offer volunteer opportunities to serving soldiers to boost their wider mentoring skills and experience. It is not an Army recruitment effort, but we believe this synergy between the Army, Sport and Mentoring is a path to success to turn young men’s lives around that is currently untapped.
Young men on the course open up and share insights into their lives that they would never normally do. With this experience we hope to contribute to the wider debate about rehabilitation. Some believe in long harsh prison time, but this doesn’t work, it’s an expensive waste of life, money and time. In partnership with Cambridge University, we hope to measure the effect of exercise based mentoring on well-being and attitudes to violence. We want to really understand the neurological development that is occurring. By better understanding a problem, you have more chance of solving it.
Leaving the army thus far has been a varied journey for me. And I'm sure it will be for most people, but it has also led me to something incredibly rewarding. If you are thinking about resettlement, be sure you want to do it, keep your options open, but most importantly find meaning in what you will do.
3 Pillars Project were visited in HMP Wandsworth by Battersea Ironsides Rugby Club this week to play and train alongside inmates taking part in the 3 Pillars Project Rugby Academy. 3 Pillars Project is a Community Interest Company that uses excellence in sport and military leadership to unlock potential and build communities.
The project has been founded by former Army Officer and Ironsides scrum half, Mike Crofts. Mike, who also coaches the Ironsides U17s side, founded the project in an effort to improve rehabilitation provision and increase understanding and integration between prisons and the local community.
Ironsides were welcome guests at the prison on a warm Thursday afternoon. Facing off against 13 inmates who have been learning to play rugby over the past seven weeks, the Ironsides team were impressed by the speed with which their opposition had mastered the fundamentals of the game. The two sides initially played a round of touch rugby matches and progressed into some training exercises. This was extremely well received and enjoyed by both the hosts and guests.
Amazingly, against seasoned opposition, the 3PP team beat Ironsides in two touch rugby matches, playing against a very determined opposition. The day was completed with a short but brutal game of contact on the prison's small 4G artificial pitch; played in extremely good spirit!
The day was another example of the fantastic role that the project has in integrating members of the community with those serving time in prison. Battersea Ironsides have a big role in the local community, and were keen to support a local up and coming community effort to aid inmate rehabilitation. Particular thanks go to Tim Homewood, 2nd XV Captain, who expressed a warm invitation to participants on the course to join the Ironsides after their release.
More details on Ironsides Rugby and the game can be found here: http://ironsidesrugby.com/carousel_news.asp?id=50
We are 3 Weeks into our inaugural HMP Wandsworth Rugby Academy. On reflection, it’s surreal to remind myself that this journey started one year ago, but that our first course is almost complete, as quickly as it started. Inspired by a rugby course engaging young offenders last summer, I endeavoured to create a course that utilised my passion for rugby, leadership and teamwork skills gleaned in the British Army as well as the development of ‘Through the Gate’ support for course graduates when they are released.
Through running this course, I am more certain and convinced than ever that this is a highly effective way to engage the mixture of men participating in our 3 Pillars Project course. From those that are experienced rugby players to the basketballer who has never picked up a rugby ball and has a natural flair for the sport; it is inspiring to witness the development of the men on the course.
Our course is not solely focused on rugby delivery. Whilst it is outstanding to see these men start to play, generating and developing a team bond, the conversations in the margins are the most rewarding gifts. With rugby as a medium or ‘the hook’ to engage the men we are working with, we are able to build up rapport and discuss extremely heavy subjects very quickly; such as family, the pressures of imminent release or remorse over crime.
There is one recurring theme that fervently reappears in conversations, that is the absence of family that men in prison feel, feelings of letting them down, remorse over absence and the effect that time in prison has on their loved ones. The theme of family seems particularly apt in conjunction with the emerging broader recognition that maintaining links and supporting family bonds is one of the most effective ways of reducing recidivism.
Families in mind, we are looking ahead optimistically to future courses. The opportunity for participants to showcase to their family what they learn on the course will be a huge part of what we build up to moving forward. Any opportunity for men in prison to bond with family and escape the mental monotony of prison life should be viewed as a positive. Not just to increase positivity within prison, but even more significantly to strengthen and nurture family ties and mutual pride between men, their partners and children.
If the central aim of rehabilitation is to reduce crime, we are quickly learning that anything that strengthens family ties is going to have a disproportionately positive effect on a prisoners future and their motivation to turn away from crime.
We were recently interviewed by UK Prison Watch on our up and coming project, you can read about it here....
My first encounter inside a UK prison allowed me to work with a boy who had been convicted, along with two others, for his part in the murder of a 23-year-old father. I often think of this boy and his victim when I justify the necessity for effective rehabilitation efforts in UK jails.
There are so many unaccounted-for victims of crime, especially in the case of this murder. In the case, a young man was killed protecting his friends. A son lost a dedicated father, a mother lost her son, a woman lost her partner and friends lost an mate. Three young men forfeited the most important years of their lives and their families no longer enjoy freedom with them. This is the tragically human impact of youth murder. It must be mitigated by better rehabilitation.
The UK prison population currently stands at 80,002. By anyone’s standards this is a tragic waste of money, potential and life. This waste, is one of the many reasons why we engage in prisons, spending time reaching out to those that society has locked up.
Why do we lock people up: do we lock prisoners up for punishment or justice, and if so are the two different?
Let’s take a look at the case of the United States. The pursuit of a retributive justice has done nothing to tackle its crime epidemic. Warehousing criminals; delivering punitive sentences to the poorest in society, giving little chance of freedom to violent offenders, and even less opportunity for rehabilitation is ineffective and if comparable with UK costs, it is expensive. The prison population of the USA is 2,193,798; of that, over 80,000 reside in solitary confinement. This is a system that sees the enactment of justice as a road to punishment.
But, in justice, there are two further creditors….society, and the victim themselves. Society loses out on two points: the exorbitant cost of sending someone to prison - a young offender, 15 – 17 year old males, cost £94,000 a year to house in a closed Young Offenders Institute. Adult prisoners cost between £30,000 and £59,000, dependent on their category. This is every single year.
Someone who spends 20 years in prison does not pay any tax. A taxpayer earning £20,000 will pay approximately £6,232 in Income Tax, NI and VAT annually. This means society will forfeit almost £1 million by jailing someone for 20 years, this is even without inflation or the cost of prosecution.
The second and more pressing aspect of justice is our responsibility to the victims of crime. Sentencing exists as part of punishment. However, justice should also compel the perpetrator of a crime to come into line with society’s laws, preventing the creation of future victims. This is above all why we must engage with prisoners; it is in every citizen’s interest to ensure that re offending rates do not remain so stubbornly high. Restorative rehabilitation already exists, but recidivism remains too high.
45% of adults in custody will reoffend. Each will commit an average of 4.5 crimes.
67% of young offenders will reoffend within a year.
The persistence of these reoffences calls for greater urgency. Urgency is not driven by the cost to the state, not only by the tragic wasted lives in prison, but most importantly by the pernicious effect that crime has on the lives of so many; the spider web of misery that radiates out from the murder of one young father. Two of the perpetrators of the crime I mentioned at the start had been in YOIs before they committed their crime; the opportunity to rehabilitate was there, but it was not taken.
When people ask why they should support the effective rehabilitation of inmates, it is because effective spending on rehabilitation and the cessation of offending benefits us all, not just the prisoner.
NEXT: As we move closer to delivering our course, we will discuss what effective projects look like...
Author: Mike Crofts
Mike is the Founder and CEO of The 3 Pillars Project. A former Army Officer, Mike advocates the power of sport, leadership and positive role models to unlock the potential of young people.