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How football in prisons can break the reoffending cycle

Pete Bell admits it was a “proud and surreal moment” when he was first handed keys to HMP Stocken to deliver his football-based prison rehabilitation programme.

Over 26 years ago, Bell was a prisoner himself, serving three months of a six-month sentence inside HMP Lincoln. The trust and foresight of Neil Thomas, Governor of HMP Stocken, has now allowed Bell to return to jail to help those in the same position as he was back in 1992.

Bell has delivered his ‘Step Out Stay Out’ programme in a number of other prisons already, giving offenders the benefit of his lived experience and offering mentoring support and football sessions to help them open up and break the damaging cycle of re-offending.

His work in HMP Stocken is more substantial, delivering his own adapted version of the FA’s Junior Football Leaders Course with inmates twice a month, educating them in the practical and theoretical aspects of running football activity, refereeing and coaching. The course usually includes practical work at grassroots clubs, but as that’s obviously impossible for inmates, Bell has adapted that element so participants practise on their peers.

Once new rules giving prison governors more autonomy in education provision come into force in April 2019, Bell hopes to be able to embed his coaching and mentoring into HMP Stocken on a more long-term basis.

“Being given keys was a really proud moment,” said Bell. “I’m walking through doors with inmates just like I did 26 years ago but this time I’m the one unlocking them. To know I’d come full circle was slightly surreal.

“Being able to do that is down to Neil and how proactive he is as a Governor. He recognises that somebody with lived experience can change, challenge and inspire some of the people in his care, help them look at their offending patterns and change their mindsets. Rehabilitation is what it’s all about and I applaud HMP Stocken’s efforts in that direction.”

Praise for Bell’s work have come from no higher figure than Justice Minister Edward Argar, who said: “I pay tribute to our Physical Education Officers, and coaches like Pete Bell from sports clubs and community organisations who deliver a range of programmes for young people in custody every day.

“Sport and physical activity can help to teach offenders self-discipline, team work and leadership – all vital skills to prepare them for a successful and crime free life on release.”

Bell recently experienced another surreal moment when he worked in HMP Lincoln, where he was incarcerated in the early 90s. He stood outside his old cell and was able to reflect on his journey since then, in which football has been a huge catalyst for positive change. It’s a process he’s keen to nurture in many others in his position.

“For me to stand in front of them and start by saying, ‘I’ve sat where you’re sitting now,’ is really powerful,” Bell explained. “Together we’re able to talk about the reasons they’re in prison and the barriers to staying out when they are released – poverty, peer groups, family ties, lifestyle etc.

“We drill down and work through what makes them commit further crimes and return into the criminal justice system. I soon start to see guys opening up to me and taking things on board. You always get one or two ‘non-embracers’, as I call them, but generally their concentration and engagement improves and we soon create a good rapport.”

Bell has recently worked in Nottingham, Ranby and Oakwood prisons as well as with hard-to-reach students at Thornhill Academy in West Yorkshire.

He has agreed plans to work at several more prisons, including a female establishment. Discussions with the FA and Premier League are in their infancy.

Ultimately, Bell’s vision is to have a team of reformed offenders providing football-based education and training on both sides of the prison gate, and employment opportunities for offenders post-release.

For now, while he’s working more or less solo, he is always contactable to his participants at all stages of their development, in or out of custody, for guidance and support. “Changing from fixed to growth mindsets is the core of what I do,” he stated.

Bell is thankful for the support and counsel of several key figures – HMP Lincoln Governor Paul Yates and PEI Ian Clarke, Governor Neil Thomas and Steve Flowers at HMP Stocken, plus former Arsenal chairman David Dein (a significant activist for football in prisons), and the Alliance of Sport.

Bell commented: “The Alliance of Sport has been hugely supportive in promoting the work that I have done so far. It can occasionally be a tough and lonely experience trying to drive and expand this work on my own, so to have the backing of the Alliance is very reassuring and motivating.”

The Ministry of Justice’s Independent Review of Sport in Justice can be read here.

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