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How Saracens Sport Foundation tackle reoffending

“Hit him harder!” “Take him down!” – not words you’d expect to hear from anyone in authority inside a prison, but these instructions are something offenders on Saracens Sport Foundation’s Get Onside project are told regularly.

Staff from the charity arm of the all-conquering Premiership rugby club have been delivering the project inside Feltham Young Offenders’ Institute in west London since 2011.

Its aims are to instill rugby’s intrinsic values of discipline, self-confidence, resilience, teamwork and ambition. When combined with mentoring support, the influence of rugby role models, life skills and employability training – both before and after release – it helps to build participants into positive, pro-social citizens who are less likely to reoffend.

Participants are generally those coming towards the end of their sentences and the vast majority have never played rugby before. They undertake an intensive eight-week course which takes them out of their comfort zone in a variety of ways – the first of which is to be very quickly introduced to full-contact rugby.

“In community rugby you focus on skills first and build up slowly to the physical side of the game, but inside Feltham we do it the other way around and go pretty aggressively from day one,” says Nick Gourlay, Saracens Sport Foundation’s Senior Development Manager for Inclusion.

“That physical element is what really harnesses the values of the sport and gets their engagement. As we go through the course, we work on channelling that aggression and frustration in the right way, turning it into something positive.

The Get Onside project was recently featured on BBC’s The One show and can be viewed here (fast forward to 3:50).

“They’re the highest intensity, highest energy sessions that we do across the Foundation’s work – full of passion and learning. By the end there’s such a tight-knit connection between them. It’s a very positive environment with people really respecting and supporting each other – and that’s quite rare in a prison.

“The great moments are when people make their first good tackle, or when the small guy takes down the big guy. Everyone stops what they’re doing and congratulates them. We don’t encourage that; it just happens.”

Each day is a mixture of classroom and outdoor physical sessions. The classroom element works on ‘soft skills’ such as conflict management and employability skills, with visits from career mentors and inspiring speakers such as ex-Sarries player Will Fraser, whose own career was ended by injury.

Throughout the eight weeks there are various milestones for inmates to achieve. In week three, they have to organise and referee a touch rugby festival in which staff from Saracens, Saracens Sport Foundation, and club sponsors Allianz and CME Group play.

“They plan all of it, do the introductions, timings and scoring. Everybody on the course has a duty to referee the game. It forces them to make positive decisions under pressure, be in control, be diplomatic and control their emotions. It’s really valuable for them.”

On the final day of the course, participants play a full 15-a-side contact match against an external senior team. “They go from never having played rugby to a full-blooded match,” says Nick. “They may miss a tackle or concede a try, and it teaches them to embrace aggression and passion, but to control it, too.”

The course, which is funded by Comic Relief, is delivered by Nick and Foundation rugby coach Theo Skoumbourdis and generally engages 17 men per eight-week block.

Saracens are very involved in supporting participants after their release with the challenges of life on the outside, either through informal mentoring, the odd free meal and use of laptops for jobhunting, or formally with job roles around the club.

The Foundation is looking to strengthen and formalise its post-release support. “That’s our priority this year,” says Nick. “The challenges these guys can face are so intense that we’re looking to put together a full post-release mentoring programme where they can engage with us day-to-day and access more training, a portfolio of job opportunities and connect them with local community clubs so they can keep playing the game and maintain the momentum of the course.”

Nick adds: “It’s not just about ensuring the guys aren’t reoffending; we want to ensure they’re thriving in their time after prison.”

The evidence suggests it’s working, with a reoffending rate among participants of just 15% (compared to nearly 60% for those serving sentences of under 12 months and 32% for those serving over 12 months).

One offender who completed the course is now a title-winning boxer and full-time personal trainer; another worked at Saracens stadium on matchdays before landing a role in a gym while another left Feltham, did a degree and has found employment in the tech industry.

Alliance of Sport Co-Founder and Secretariat, Justin Coleman, feels the Get Onside project is an excellent example of what can be achieved with effective cooperation between prisons and community organisations.

“The way Feltham YOI resettlement and gym staff work with Saracens Sport Foundation is one of the best collaborations between community and the Criminal Justice System I have ever seen.

“Public sector prisons working with local partners to achieve effective rehabilitation through sport is something the Alliance of Sport is working to encourage across the Secure Estate. We congratulate Feltham and Saracens Sport Foundation for the profound impact their work is having on young offenders in their care.”

Nick is keen to thank the Alliance of Sport for its role in helping Get Onside get established and maximise its impact. He says: “The Alliance were massive in helping us secure our three-year funding from Comic Relief, putting us in touch with the right people, understanding what our impact was going to be and helping us package that.

“We’ve had some really good support from them in getting us to the right conferences and in the right meetings with the Ministry of Justice and other stakeholders. The Alliance are someone we really want to continue to work closely with going forward as we look to expand our impact into more prisons.”

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