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.