Krissy Brooks is Chief of Staff at 3Pillars Project, a charity and social enterprise supporting young men in custody and those who have recently left prison to forge brighter futures. In this article, written exclusively for ConnectSport, she explores the sport-created communities that support these young men to train, build an education and establish positive and powerful relationships that see them move beyond their pasts, despite global uncertainty.
JJ [not his real name] is 31 and doesn’t know how to use his smart phone. Events over the past five years – moving between prisons and sporadic days on release with his family – have meant that when he was let out on day release in early March, he has seen relatively little of the outside world for half a decade. A typical prison-leaver walks out of the gate with £46 in their pocket. They won’t have identity documents and will be at either a halfway hostel or back with a family member if they are lucky. Many are released homeless, with more than a third reporting having no where to sleep upon release. Until they sort out a job or support, that money covers, food, sleep, and potentially dependents. Imagine a factory reset on all your adult life, then factor in unemployment and uncertain housing – the anxiety and stress levels are high. Finding your way home would also be easier if you could use your smartphone!
For the past five months, Covid-19 social distancing rules have meant JJ has spent 22 hours a day in his cell. It’s nearly impossible to do social distancing without using prolonged solitary confinement. Two thirds of the UK prison population have effectively been in solitary confinement for five months. General international consensus is that 14 days in solitary does permanent damage to mental health. JJ must now face the pandemic-ruled outside world, which, is now a very different place from the one he left five years ago. To have a chance at a ‘successful’ future he will have to not only get a handle on the latest touch-screen device, but navigate a pandemic-crippled job market, an economic depression and a society scrambling to realign. We know that someone leaving prison faces a steep uphill climb. Eighty per cent of prisoners are not in PAYE employment a year after release. Quality employment is one of the core causes behind re-offending, 30% of adult prison leavers re-offend with one year. Covid-19 has made the post-release journey much harder.
How can you support a person navigating this complex path? Our answer is to start with sport. We resumed our post-release support three months ago. Despite the many challenges they face on leaving prison, the first thing many of our apprentices ask to do is play sport. Just as the rest of the population became a nation of online work-out addicts, it is sport that these young men seek when looking to begin to rebuild fundamental aspects of their lives and their mental and physical health.
Sport goes beyond building your own individual physical and mental wellbeing, it provides a community of positive role models.
The sports field, gym, pool or court are great levellers. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from or what you have been through. It is an opportunity to push your past aside and focus solely on yourself and the here and now. As lockdown showed, sport creates a sacred space, somewhere that - regardless of your situation - you can overcome challenges and make progress. Sport and fitness is an opportunity to see physical improvement and that can be a turning point for our apprentices. A point where they see the effort they put in return a good result. It’s a lesson you transfer to other areas of life.
On his post-release journey, JJ has been involved 3Pillars Project’s Fitness Academy. It starts with sport but offers much more. Sport can cut through stigmatised and broken trust in traditional support systems. Where many young people and their families have felt a deep distrust of the agencies, institutions and services that have in the past systematically failed them, sport and its value-driven communities can play an important role.
Boxing and rugby demand respect, self-control and discipline. They are sports that build trust with those around you. Coupled with one-to-one mentoring, we use these sport-based opportunities to enable young men like JJ to build successful futures. Where sport starts the conversation, our mentoring builds the guidelines for a sustainable future.
We have found that the non-stigmatised environment in our post-release programme, the ‘Fitness Academy’, allows us to provide unique holistic mentoring alongside much sought-after physical fitness. Our apprentices are able to “focus more on me as a person rather than my problems, I am more refocused on achieving my goals now”.
We find that sport can provide a strong community of positive male athletes as role models, where training and work placements support young men to get the qualifications needed to secure sustainable careers and brighter futures.
Uncertainty and disruption look likely to remain for the foreseeable future, so sport will provide a much-needed refuge, training ground and community for everyone. For those whose pasts involve prison, sport offers a crucial, grounding lifeline as they navigate the complexities, stress and demands in their own communities. It offers a safe place to rebuild relationships, employment skills and make a better future. For someone like JJ, sport has provided the community in which he rebuilt his future. Still very much part of the community, he takes time out after his job (the first he has ever had) to mentor other young men seeking to create a new future.