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Boxing proves the right hook to engage prison leavers in Cheshire

Serving offenders from HMP Thorn Cross have begun working with young people at risk of school exclusions on a boxing programme in Cheshire – with immediate results for both parties. 

Queensberry Alternative Provision in Northwich, founded last July, uses boxing as an engagement tool to boost vulnerable young people’s resilience, discipline, respect, positive behaviour and engagement in the classroom.

The link with nearby Thorn Cross prison began as a pilot last summer and launched in earnest in January 2019. So far, three offenders – all convicted of serious crimes – have taken part, telling their stories and becoming coaches, mentors and role models for young people on the programme. 

The model has two main goals – reducing school exclusions for their young participants (through their 12 Rounds and The Hook programmes) and reducing reoffending for adults from the prison. The positive impact is therefore reciprocal; it helps prevent young people entering the criminal justice system and supports adults who are about to leave it. 

Queensberry AP’s Co-Founders, Paul Cooper and Nic Martin, initially invited several inmates from Thorn Cross on community service to do odd jobs. Informally, they ‘interviewed’ each one with a view to engaging them on their idea for a new programme. One candidate stood out and returned to speak to the young people.

‘You could have heard a pin drop’

“We sat and watched him tell his own life story to the kids, and you could have heard a pin drop for two hours and 15 minutes,” reveals Paul. “We’ve commissioned interventions in the past which were basically scare tactics, but this was different. It was about the impact of his offences on him, his family and the wider community. 

“His story was harrowing, but really powerful. Sharing it has almost been like counselling for him. He’s got really involved with all aspects of the programme. It has had a real impact on him and the choices he’s made moving forwards. 

“To witness an adult reflecting on their own behaviour and taking responsibility is quite humbling. It’s massive. We very much promote restorative justice; talking through the impact with them on a daily basis really does hit home.” 

The individual in question was released in April after serving 14 years. He continues to work with Queensberry AP two days a week, providing him with a vital source of post-release support and an important distraction from falling back into old, nefarious habits and peer groups. 

Meanwhile, two more serving Thorn Cross inmates have joined the programme, having observed his initial sessions.  

“They have settled into it quite naturally,” reflects Nic. “They are very outgoing, personable characters and as they’ve seen how young people have developed through these interventions, they’ve taken a real sense of pride from that. It has really motivated them to make sure they get it right and send the right messages.” 

Supporting post-release

One of them has a boxing background and Paul and Nic have turned him into a de facto teaching assistant, and is working towards his England Boxing Level 1 coaching qualification. Once released, he will link up with his old boxing club in nearby Wigan. 

Queensberry AP have also established links with Rotunda ABC in Liverpool (former British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion Tony Bellew’s old club) and are aiming to place another participant there as a volunteer post-release. 

“Employment within boxing is difficult to come by, but if we can give them focus and something to put their time and effort into upon release, to distract them from a life of crime and support their local communities, that’s our goal,” states Nic. 

Between them, Paul and Nic have over 30 years’ experience; Nic in mainstream education and as a senior leader in a local authority Pupil Referral Unit; Paul in social care, mainstream education, working with young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and as deputy head at a PRU. He also has a boxing background and holds his England Boxing Level 1 qualification.

Boxing the perfect tool

Paul is convinced that boxing has innate qualities that make it the ideal vehicle for engaging hard-to-reach young people and adults – but only if harnessed in the right way. 

“A lot of people seem to think the sport itself is the answer to everybody’s prayers, but we use it as a tool to promote discipline and respect in the lads from prison, moulding them into coaches, officials, positive role models and peer mentors,” he said. 

“This programme will massively support keeping these guys on the straight and narrow, because there will unfortunately always be that temptation to go down former paths – especially given the lack of support they have experienced from probation, housing and job opportunities. 

“We’re fortunate to be able to offer a positive alternative for them and we now aim to make it a steady conveyor belt of lads who we’re able to support in their resettlement into the community upon release. Whilst we’re still very new, we are already proving this is a model that can be sustained.” 






Further reading on boxing and criminal justice:

  • Our Co-Founder James Mapstone’s blog on the positive impact boxing could have in prisons. Read more
  • How Peterborough-based Boxing Futures helps young offenders on the ropes. Read more
  • The extraordinary journey of SwitchUp and Nottingham School of Boxing founder Marcellus Baz. Read more
  • How the Alliance of Sport is supporting the social impact of boxing through the APPG on Boxing. Read more
  • How Fight for Peace reduce youth violence and create champions – in the ring and in life. Read more
  • Hard-hitting: how Anfield North Liverpool Boxing Club is fighting crime and social issues in Merseyside. Read more

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