“Participation can not only improve health and behaviour but can directly contribute to efforts to reduce reoffending, particularly by providing a route into education and employment.”
Prof Rosie Meek, 2018
Professor Rosie Meek provides a brilliant insight into the important impact that sport can have on improving the lives of prisoners in A Sporting Chance: An Independent Review of Sport in Youth and Adult Prisons. We were also delighted to be included as a positive case study. Perhaps most importantly, Prof Meek provides actionable recommendations on how the involved organisations can develop this impact. The following will add the 3 Pillars perspective on a few items from the review and the Government Response.
Making people that have not previously responded well to traditional education sit in a classroom in the hope that they will suddenly suit that environment would be a rather large waste of time. Flexibility is key to enabling progress. The majority of our participants have a low level of education and do not enjoy traditional classroom-based learning. To combat this, our sessions are as practical as possible - if a lesson can be active we make it active. We use rugby as a tool to educate our participants. If we can get them involved and moving around there is a greater chance that they could learn something from their active participation, rather than passive attendance.
Keep Apart Lists
Prisons stop certain boys mixing because of the risk of them fighting. We’ve worked with some great staff who have encouraged conflict resolution meetings between these boys and participants respond well. Most prisoners need a reason to change their behaviour, such as the opportunity to take part in a purposeful activity. A communal activity, such as rugby training, provides prisoners the opportunity to productively engage with fellow prisoners, whether they are taking part in a fitness session or a match. Just because two prisoners have had confrontational interactions, it does not mean that keeping them separated is the only answer, in fact it could be rather counterproductive and foster further animosity. Giving young people an initial reason to work past their conflict and then directly engaging them in an activity together could be the solution to many issues.
Re-consider Martial Arts/Boxing
With both a martial artist and a pro-boxer in our team, we really believe that these activities could be key to making a lasting change in the lives of young people, particularly young men. We see a lot of young men that need to release their anger and develop their control.
We absolutely agree that safety and security of the environment must be paramount, and a properly constructed programme delivered by quality instructors could substantially improve the environment. Contrary to popular belief, martial arts are not about aggression, rather they are about control; control over one's mind, body and actions. Prison violence is a real problem and it needs to effectively challenged. If prisoners are going to be violent then provide them a suitable direction, ignoring the problem will not solve it. The government say there is no evidence such programmes will work in prison, so they should give organisations the opportunity to develop the evidence they require.
Our rugby programmes featured as a good practice example in the Sport Review. The extract gives a brief insight into the story of one participant and how a properly constructed pathway can support prisoners and ex-prisoners through sport and mentoring. Whilst we praise all of the hard work used as examples in the review, we believe it is necessary to state that sport it not enough, which both Prof Meek and Edward Argar MP recognise. Sport is a brilliant gateway to engage young people, rugby in particular is ideally suited to capture the attention (and energy) of young men prone to aggressive behaviour, but sport cannot and should not be the end. We look forward to positive developments in the criminal justice system.
Six months ago, I knew nothing about rugby, prison rehabilitation or running a charity. Naturally therefore, the Civil Service posted me to a rugby-based prison rehabilitation charity. When I was informed of my new role, I promptly commissioned a rugby fact list from a friendly colleague (thanks Dave!) and signed up to the local gym. I felt I could easily get on board with the 3 Pillars values of ‘education’ and ‘ethos’ but, having always been the last to be picked for any sporting team, the ‘exercise’ element might prove a challenge!
3 Pillars has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. I can now say that a prisoner taught me to do bicep curls, my colleague taught me how to do burpees and my boss has been on the receiving end of my punches (I hasten to add that this was in a controlled environment, supervised by a professional boxing coach and no-one got hurt).
Exercise certainly breaks down barriers with colleagues and allows you to build deeper relationships, just as it does on 3 Pillars’ courses in prison! I have learnt about the joys and struggles of working for a small, recently established organisation. Being part of a close-knit team, who really believe in the work we do, has been a real privilege, and I will be taking fond memories, varied experiences and new skills with me.
Whether it is the World Cup, a local derby, or a casual game in the park, many of us support, watch and participate in sport. For some, it can be something to attend at the weekend, but for the most part, it is a lifestyle; and with chants of “It’s coming home” flooding the streets, we are reminded of the true power of sport to unite a nation.
While not everyone is gifted with the same athleticism, we can all benefit from the transformational properties of sport. At 3 Pillars Project we believe that physical activity, and in our case, rugby, can lead to positive changes in prisoners. Often, we are asked, “Why rugby?”, and the answer is generally pretty simple. Rugby is a contact team sport which promotes an ethos of respect, self-discipline and teamwork… and it’s our CEO’s favourite sport too, so that helps. Developing the skills, teamwork and discipline which are essential for rugby can be revolutionary for young men. However, our coaches also have a vast experience with football, boxing and martial arts, which when used appropriately, can also instil a respect for the pursuit of excellence.
There was a recent backlash to Former Youth Justice Minister Dr. Phillip Lee’s proposed plans to introduce young offenders to martial arts and boxing. Particularly, these concerns have been fueled by public and political fears of making ex-prisoners more dangerous. Some people feel that training young prisoners in combat sports could increase levels of violence found in prison and the community upon release. Though research indicates that the correct training could reduce levels of violence (Harwood, et al., 2017).
A popular example of the positive impact of the appropriate training in combat sport is the World Heavyweight Champion, Anthony Joshua; who learned the values of responsibility, hard work and commitment through boxing. His story shows the potential policy applications of sport to break the cycle of violence and reoffending among prisoners, many of whom, lack the essential role models which can be found in sport.
There are many more examples of how sport can be a force for change. Sport should play a key role in addressing a multitude of prisoner health needs. Playing rugby whilst in custody has a number of benefits: improved fitness levels, increased physical and mental wellbeing, decreased levels of violence and conflict, increased impulse control and the development of leadership skills. We have seen these first hand from the toughest adult prisoner through to young men often unable to mix with other boys in Young Offender Institutes.
The impact of participation in sport can lead to personal and social development that can lead to increased opportunities, employment prospects, and provide an alternative to a life of crime.
For most prisoners, sport is not an end in itself, it is the first step in a journey of rehabilitation. For that reason, we will continue to promote our ethos and values of rugby to support prisoners to move their lives beyond crime.
Before entering a Young Offenders Institute for the first time, one can be confronted by thoughts which, although you do your best to suppress and dismiss, still seem to find a way into your mind, and menace with your outlook and expectations. They usually centre around worst-case scenarios involving riots and captivity at one end of the spectrum, and a disruptive, disinterested group at the other. Visions of being jeered and booed out of the classroom, while being shielded from scrunched up paper missiles made from the very worksheets you prepared for their benefit. This can lead to a fatalistic view and even worse thoughts like: what is the point of working with this group?
I’d suggest that much of this is fuelled by media, entertainment and musical representations of what prison life is like. While being behind bars as part of your work struggles miserably to compare to afternoon tea at the Savoy, it’s far from the negative ideas people tend to focus on when they think of being in that scenario. In most cases it’s rewarding, uplifting and a positive experience which can often remind you that good people can be found in all circumstances and come from all kinds of backgrounds.
Even criminal ones…
…and that, in a nutshell, is the premise that underpins the work we do at 3 Pillars.
Yes, on entering the prison environment, you’re met with the stares of curiosity, the occasional displays of bravado and clowning. Random questions and queries shouted from 30 or 40 yards away, or a cell window on one of the wings. But is this much different to what you might encounter on a trip to a school during break time, or a factory floor?
However, once you get your group in a room, to carry out the work for which you’re there for, you’re confronted with the realisation that these guys are no different to groups you would encounter in the outside world.
Once the veneer of the prison stereotype, often adorned to fit in and be accepted, is discarded by the participant: that’s what you’re left with…a participant. One that can possess talent, intelligence, and potential. Sometimes all three and more. There’s also a vulnerability, maybe a legacy of being let down by a combination of institutions, individuals and also themselves.
There are many that will blame everyone else for the constant supply of young people to prison. That’s not my position, nor that of 3 Pillars. It would be remiss of us to ignore the complex and multiple failings that often blight young offender’s lives. Though for us, taking ownership of what you’ve done and how you behave is an important ingredient to the work we do. What we also pride ourselves in doing, is acknowledging these factors but also looking past them, and working with what and who is in front of us.
What I’ve then seen in most, if not all the participants I’ve worked with on the programme, is the potential to be better and do better. Listening to some of the comments that have been made to me, shows me that the idea of discarding young people who break the law is a flawed one.
When these relationships are allowed to grow through the dynamic of sports, the changes in character, the honesty, and the willingness to learn becomes all the more stark. From the pitch, it’s not hard to identify the potential of it.
A basketball coach once said: You can tell a lot about a person, by how he/she behaves on a pitch or court. What I’ve seen so far with 3 Pillars is the total embodiment of that.
Jason is a former footballer, and UEFA qualified coach, Jason joined 3 Pillars in 2018 to support programme development and delivery. Jason has 10 years’ experience of working in Sport for Development in the UK and abroad, using sport to teach young people about personal development, HIV and AIDS amongst other issues.
In a recent review on the impact of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) on prisoner reoffending, Hillier and Mews (2018) [read the full report here] found that prisoners frequently allocated onto temporary release in the period leading up to release from prison were significantly less likely to reoffend.
At 3 Pillars we have seen the value of ROTL first hand, providing prisoners with opportunities to spend time outside of the prison, enabling them to prepare for their life after prison upon completion of their sentence. This can include activities which contribute to their resettlement, such as seeking employment, finding stable accommodation, or building family ties. The positive association found by Hillier and Mews suggests that the greater the accessibility and availability of ROTL placements and/or activities, the greater the chance ex-prisoners have of effectively reintegrating and contributing to society.
However, not all prisoners are eligible for ROTL, and not all licences are the same. There are four main types of ROTL, including:
Hillier and Mews’ analysis of the different types of ROTL and the characteristics of those given ROTL in their analysis provides an insight into its application. They found that in the six months prior to release, Resettlement Day Release was by far the most common (94%), followed by Overnight Release (4%), Special Purpose (2%) and Childcare Resettlement (<1%).
ROTL is frequently used in England and Wales, and it was an integral part of Education and Employment Strategy launched in May by the Justice Secretary (MoJ, 2018) [read the strategy here]. Generally, the total number of ROTL failures remains relatively rare, there are only 75 per 100,000 ROTL incidences. Failure incidents typically include activities such as returning late, failing to return, alleged offending or other breaches of licence conditions. Whist there might be ROTL failures, Hillier and Mews’ research strongly indicates that ROTL can reduce reoffending by enhancing training, employment and family ties ready for release. Prisoners also donate a large proportion of their income to a victims fund.
Getting prisoners into work could be the key to breaking the cycle of crime and increasing ROTL in the six months prior to release has significant reductions in offending. All types of ROTL were associated with positive outcomes in reoffending. Each additional Resettlement Day Release was associated with some 0.5% reduced odds of reoffending over one year and; each additional Resettlement Overnight Release was associated with 5% reduced odds of reoffending over one year.
However, the job of delivering this does not stop at the prison gate. For ROTL to occur, ex-prisoners will need coherent supervision that will address the multitude of problems they may face in their lives; there will also need to be a renewed focus on encouraging employers in all sectors to identify appropriate ROTL placements for prisoners.
If we hope to provide prisoners with the best chance of resettlement into the community, it should be imperative for prisons to consider providing suitable prisoners with this opportunity, as much as possible.
We are very excited to share the results of an Independent Evaluation conducted by C. Arnott of our pilot project with 15-18 year olds in Cookham Wood YOI.
The report examines data collected over the course of the project, interviews with staff and importantly interviews with our fantastic course graduates.
The report finds increases in Self-Esteem and Wellbeing, Impulse Control and Physical Fitness.
We are also really pleased with the feedback from the interviews mentioned in the report from both staff and boys. Here are some extracts:
Course Graduates said about things the course had helped with:
"Self-confidence – yes – I don’t really do a lot, I don’t get on with new people and don’t liketalking but helping run the sessions changed that. I’m a lot happier."
"My mental willpower has increased remarkably"
"Its helped with my self-confidence – being able to stand up and talk in front of a group people would usually make me very anxious."
Prison Officers and Teachers:
"Their behaviour in prison and as humans has improved dramatically."
"The trajectory for improvement has been massive."
"Communication has improved greatly – both with the staff and between the boys. I have seen their communication with each other improve – the boys are praising each other and I’ve seen leaders emerge."
"We’ve seen a team developing and boys realising their potential"
You can read the whole report below:
3 Pillars Project constantly strives to better engage with young people in order to support
them to develop confidence and self-belief. As part of this we have undertaken mentoring
training, Mental Health First Aid and developed a trauma-informed approach to our
3 Pillars are continually developing our understanding of issues that affect prisoners.
According to Gorczynski (2016), “many of the physical, psychological and social health
needs of LGBT prisoners are neglected”. We already understand that mental health is an
issue that affects many prisoners, and we are aware of the conditions that prisons create
which can exacerbate this for the LGBT community: incidents of homophobia, biphobia and
transphobia are common. Many individuals fear being discriminated against and intimidated
and being the victims of physical and sexual violence. Following on from this 3 Pillars
Project attended a ‘LGBT Sexuality and Gender Awareness’ training workshop hosted by
Mosaic Youth ahead of LGBT month. The workshop covered a range of topics, including
axes of privilege, domination and oppression relating to issues faced by the LGBTQI+
In every aspect of our contact with prisoners and ex-prisoners, we aim to implement elements
of respectful practice within a safe environment. 3 Pillars Project recognises the need to
better understand the experiences of the LGBT community in prison, especially pertaining to
Though we provide positive masculine role models for the prisoners to engage with,
attending the training workshop was important for us to be understanding and informative of
the different genders prisoners may identify. Gaining awareness of the LGBT community and
the discrimination that they face enables our role models, regardless of gender, to navigate
their thinking, policies and practices to be more empathetic.
On Friday 16th of February 2018, 3 Pillars Project were delighted to join Prince Harry and Rugby Legend, Jonny Wilkinson, at England Rugby's open training session in support of Try For Change. Preparing for their next Six Nations game, England Rugby were using the training day as an occasion to thank the rugby community for their continued support.
As one of the first eleven projects to be part-funded by the RFU and Comic Relief’s Try for Change, we were proud to be able to discuss our work in prisons in London and South East areas. Coaches Kaz and Mike spoke with Prince Harry, a fan of the sport and Patron of the Rugby Football Union, about the power of sport, values of rugby, positive role models, mentoring… and Coach Kaz’s massive thighs.
3 Pillars Project CEO, Mike Crofts, first met with Prince Harry almost two and a half years ago. The Prince shared with him his advice on how to make the idea of 3 Pillars Project into a reality. It was, therefore an incredible honour to be able to discuss our progress with the Prince and share with him our achievements in using excellence in sport, teamwork and leadership as a foundation for effective rehabilitation.
The majority of individuals within the criminal justice system have been exposed to traumatic events across their lives. A considerable body of research now indicates a link between traumatic experiences and subsequent criminal behaviour and aggression, otherwise known as the ‘cycle of violence’. Complex trauma-related problems present in many guises, including seeking-risk or challenging behaviours, and may be the product of coping mechanisms and attempted self-protection. Being trauma informed is a way that non-clinical organisations can demonstrate that they are therapeutic.
Thanks to a kind donation by the Rothschild Foundation, we have been able to expand our support and training to allow for the integration of a trauma informed approach. We believe that the principles underpinning trauma informed practice are essential in the delivery of effective support to young people in prison. In particular, developing a trauma informed approach has been central to support our work in our new project, Cookham Wood Youth Offenders Institute (YOI). Up to “90% of justice-involved-youth report exposure to some type of traumatic event” (Dierkhising et al, 2013).
The basic assumptions of a trauma informed approach are safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment (Quiros and Berger, 2013). Fundamentally, at the core of our courses, we build strong and influential relationships based on trust, support and through sport education.
Trauma informed practice will also allow us to support the participants’ recovery, facilitating personal and social development, and more importantly, avoiding re-traumatization. Complementary to our courses, using a trauma-informed and strengths-based approach will promote natural resiliency and provide young people with the tools to positively manage their emotions.
Overall, implementing a trauma informed approach for 3 Pillars Project has involved organizational change, including the reassessment of policies, course practices, and the training of staff. By no means does this assume that our coaches and mentors will be trauma-experts, however, by providing a trauma informed approach, we will be more equipped in our interactions with the participants going forward, emphasising trust, collaboration and safety in particular.
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.