Home Society & Culture How Rugby is Helping to Reform Offenders in the UK

How Rugby is Helping to Reform Offenders in the UK

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There is much discussion around the increasing nature of youth crime in the UK, with many weighing in on the issues threatening the safety of young people and the British public. England has the second highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe (second only to Scotland) and prisons often function as a revolving door, with many returning soon after they are released. The reoffending rate in the UK is 30% for adults within one year of release from prison, rising to 50% for those with 11 or more previous offences and 64% released from sentences of less than 12 months. Young adults form an important portion of the youth estate and are defined as those who are between 18 and 21 years old.

So, what can we do to reduce this high reoffending rate? Various prison-based intervention programmes have looked to reduce it by improving opportunities for young adults as they are released from prison. Often run by outside agencies in collaboration with prison gym departments, there has been some success shown in this area but this has not yet been looked at longitudinally. Overall, our research aimed to look at whether a prison-based sport programme brings about a reduction in reoffending rate for those taking part tested over a period of up to 18 months. However, first of all, we looked to explore the experiences of those taking part in the programme. 

The programme itself is an 8-week rugby training intervention run by Saracens Sport Foundation coaches and prison service physical education instructors. The programme offers male young adult offenders the opportunity to develop positive attitudes and perceptions of themselves and others as well as team and individual values and provides resettlement opportunities including voluntary work, education and employment.

The study included semi-structured interviews and focus groups run with those young adult offenders that had taken part in the programme. Common themes that arose allowed us to look at some of the most prevalent issues facing young adult males in prison as well as providing us with some recommendations for how the prison estate can better utilise and improve their sport provision. 

The programme was found to be a good way of integrating different people in the prison from different areas of London. Participants of the course praised it for encouraging them to mix with other young people that they would normally be reluctant to mix with due to previous issues and gang affiliation. The ability to foster these relationships was particularly emphasised through playing a team sport – this echoes recommendations from the recently released report on sport in the UK prison estate.  

Young adults who had completed the course also commented on the controlled aggression aspect of rugby – highlighting how it was an effective way of releasing anger and stress that they experienced in their daily prison life. Working out these issues on the rugby pitch provided an opportunity to resolve this tension in a constructive way, with no negative consequences.

Participants also talked about how they did not feel like a prisoner when they were playing sport in prison. Spending time outside, engaging in a match and playing with visitors who had come in from outside, empowered them and gave them something to look forward to. They spoke about how this related to feeling in control, something they did not often feel during their time in prison, especially when they got to organise and run a touch rugby tournament themselves for visitors.  

Continuing research will further investigate themes with a comparison group of participants who did not take part in the programme and explore the differences in pro-criminal attitudes before and after programme completion. In addition, reoffending data will be collected for all participants over a period of up to 18 months.

Sarah Welland is a doctoral researcher at Middlesex University in London exploring the effectiveness of a sport intervention on reducing reoffending in young adult males.

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