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The inspiring impact of rugby in a Buenos Aires prison

The Alliance of Sport first encountered the work of Fundacion Espartanos at the Beyond Sport awards in New York in late 2016, where we met Director Pablo Gloggler. The effect the Foundation has had inside Unidad Penitenciaría de San Martín, a prison on the outskirts of Argentinian capital Buenos Aires, is nothing short of remarkable. Those effects are now expanding across the world.

Rugby is the key driver of behavioural change inside the jail – it helps to build participants’ collective morale, self-belief, self-esteem, educational attainment and employability. The recidivism rate of Los Espartos is close to zero. We caught up with Pablo to find out how they use sport to achieve their incredible rehabilitative impact.

 

Hi Pablo, how did Espartanos begin?
Espartanos started back in March 2009. One of our founders visited a prison and after what he found out there in the faces of the people deprived of their freedom, he later recruited other players and former rugby players to join him in teaching rugby to them, to try and change their ways and to get a shot at a second chance.

Apart from rugby skills, what do the prisoners on the programme learn?
At first it was all about rugby and training to be a rugby team. Later, after having achieved a good playing standard, other needs started to show up. They needed to talk, to be listened to and it was the right moment to introduce them to other forms of reflection and spirituality. After that, when some of them were starting to face the end of their convictions we all realised that they needed to work on their formal education and working skills. Currently we strongly work on four pillars: rugby, spirituality, education and job preparedness, having resources assigned to each pillar.

How would you describe the Espartanos philosophy?
The Espartanos’ philosophy is based on second chances, in not staying fallen, in the idea of teamwork, perseverance, humility, respect, attitude to face obstacles, resilience, silence, patience… in other words: it is a renewed way to face life. We expect our players to complete their time in prison and not go back to that place. We are doing this not so the prisoners can get out earlier, we do this so they will not come back.

How would you describe the impact on the men inside the jail?
A psychologist told us a few years ago how she recognised Espartanos compared to other people deprived from their freedom. She said that there were three things. One was that Espartanos look you in the eyes when they talk to you. Secondly, Espartanos listen attentively. And thirdly, Espartanos are warmer than usual, they crave contact.

What effect has it had on the prison environment – e.g. relations between staff and prisoners?
When we are able to set up exclusive rugby blocks in the penitentiaries we work at, the level of conflict is dramatically reduced. In our block 8 in prison 48, the first we had, we have not had an incident since November 2014.

How scaleable is the programme?
To date we are in 46 prisons (federal and provincial) in 15 provinces in the country. A total of 1,680 players are participating in the programme in Argentina. We are also liaising with three units in Portugal, one in Uruguay and one in Spain, and working on private initiatives to open up the programme in Costa Rica, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa and Chile.

What is it about rugby that makes it a good tool for rehabilitation?
It is all about the values instilled by your coaches to play it and how these values help you out to face life. The team comes first, the authority of the referee is crucial and anyone can play it.

Is there any support in place for Espartanos players after they leave prison?
Six months prior to leaving prison, they are subject to an interview, and a mentor is assigned. After that, we start trying to find them a job in line with their abilities. To date, 130 Espartanos are working in over 50 companies throughout the country.

Further reading

Read how Saracens Sport Foundation use rugby to tackle reoffending inside HMP Feltham

Read how the 3 Pillars Project rehabilitate men in prison through rugby and role models

Read how the Leeds Rhinos Foundation uses rugby to prepare men in prison for life post-release

Main pic: Ruben Digilio

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