In April 2016, I spoke about positive male role models at the Leeds Beckett University Prison Research Network; celebrating the first anniversary of the network. It is a concept which is at the heart of the 3 Pillars Project. The event's key note speaker was Francis Crook of The Howard League for Penal Reform.
I was pleased to speak at what was my first address on the 3 Pillars Project since founding the project in August 2015. I reflected that without some strong male role models and my own military service, it would not have been possible.
Deliberately identifying the need for male role models is something that can strike up controversy, but my frequent interactions with teachers, parents, prison officers and young people themselves suggest that it is an essential need that should be met in the lives of children, and one that is often absent.
As a young Army Officer I was placed in a position of responsibility at a very young age, 22. I was 24 when I first deployed to Afghanistan in command of a number of soldiers from Britain and Afghanistan. I reflect now, that the particularly strong Senior Non Commissioned Officers that I worked alongside provided me with overwhelmingly effective mentoring, acting as role models displaying loyalty, courage and discipline that I eagerly assimilated. Deploying again in 2013 in a more senior role, it was again reinforced just how strikingly I admired the professionalism of the senior soldiers around me; they were my role models.
My time in the British Army, accompanied by experience as a volunteer rugby coach and volunteer with The Doorstep Library in London, has convinced me of the importance of providing positive, reliable and effective male role models for young people, especially those in custody in the United Kingdom.
The term 'real man' is often banded about when the issue of male role models is concerned. Unfortunately it is often confused with and sucked into the world of gender politics. So I think it is important to identify what a real man is in the modern day and age. We can not afford to shy away from the concept of teaching boys in society to be real men and what we want that to mean. As well as what it should not mean.
How I believe a 'real man' should act is informed by my own upbringing and time in the army. It is this: A real man has the confidence to be who he is. He is not concerned by the gender, sexuality or self determination of others. He is kind and considerate. He is able to develop healthy relationships with his friends, partner and family and is respectful within them. He would not choose to subjugate anyone below him for his own ends. He can exercise self control, whilst understanding his strengths and personal weaknesses. And he fulfils his responsibilities to his family, friends and society.
Role models that exist within our popular culture often have no right to be labelled as such. Popular figures who commit crime, boast affairs, espouse self entitlement and dishonesty prove just how warped our provision of role models has become today; Adam Johnson and football's diving culture spring to mind. Compound this with the horrendous childhood legacies that many children in prison carry with them, we should not be surprised that many children do not behave the way the law and society asks them to.
Too many of the boys we work with in prison have experienced upbringings and failings in care that no child should be subjected to endure in a modern society. Some have been sexually abused (around 5%), more have been physically abused and neglected, a huge number were in the care or under attention of social services before entering custody and 74% grew up with their father absent from their lives. These children are in prison, and if under 18 years old, 73% of them are likely to reoffend within one year. Too many young boys within our society are left to be raised by gangs within our cities because that is the only effective family they have, albeit often one of violence and crime. So, I repeatedly find myself saying, is it any surprise that they end up in the prison system?!
Why is a male role model important in the lives of these children, soon to be men? The introduction of male role models who can be respected and emulated help boys in custody to redefine their personal narratives. Good prison officers show the boys that 'the system' or police can and will treat them fairly, but introducing fresh role models can offer three further things. 1) it demonstrates how men should behave within society, beyond prison fences; 2) It offers the opportunity for them to develop relationships built on trust, without judgement; Perhaps most importantly, 3) It reminds these children that society still cares about them.
Our project coaches are so superb because they are diverse. But more importantly they have real life experience, whether that be from the Army, working in the care system or professional sport, they have lives that boys in custody can respect. By utilising rugby and teamwork sessions our course participants enjoy themselves and develop trust between with their coaches, as this happens they subconciously emulate the role models stood in front of them. Playing an intense and team focused game like rugby simultaneously burns off much of the tension that most teenage boys carry with them, let alone those resigned to prison. This is not a new or revolutionary concept, but it is a principle that we must acknowledge.
So when I talk about providing male role models to develop boys in prison into real men, it is not with some ill conceived notion of machismo. It is because we need all boys to understand how they should behave in society, who they can aspire to be and what they can offer, as grown men.
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.