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Joined-up approach ‘vital’ to unlock sport’s effect on crime

Sport’s full potential in reducing crime will only be unlocked with a joined-up approach and more risk-taking across criminal justice, a DCMS Committee has been told.

A House of Commons Committee inquiry session entitled, ‘Can participation in sport and culture help prevent youth crime?’ was this morning (Tuesday July 3) attended by former Justice Minister Dr Phillip Lee MP, Professor Rosie Meek of Royal Holloway University and ex-offender turned professional athlete John McAvoy – an Ambassador for the Alliance of Sport.

They told the specially-convened committee of their experiences of sport’s transformative power on offenders when delivered astutely by passionate prison staff and followed up by through-the-gate support in the community.

John was formerly a prolific armed armed robber but is now a Nike-sponsored Ironman athlete. He is the embodiment of the power of sport. His potential was first recognised by prison officer Darren Davis when he spotted him on the rowing machine inside HMP Lowdham Grange.

He told the Committee: “You’re far more likely to change someone if they engage in things they have a passion for, and in prison a lot of people have a passion for exercise and training. The prison gym is a massive way you can target some of the most disenfranchised people and try to orchestrate that mindset change to do something positive with their lives.”

After his release, John joined a rowing club and told the committee of the effect sport-based support on both sides of the prison gate had on him.

He said: “At the rowing club my whole social circle changed in that club environment. Sport exposed me to more positive role models and it inspired me to keep on the track I was on.

“I was the most one-track minded criminal you could meet. If I can turn my life around, every single one of those 90,000 people in prison can do the same. That is the power of sport.”

Dr. Phillip Lee MP, a key campaigner for the use of sport in criminal justice, said: “We must find a way of rehabilitating and reaching out to these young men and I’ve seen little evidence of anything better than sport.”

He added that more joined-up evidence is needed to prove sport’s value to those in the corridors of power – an issue on which the Alliance of Sport is leading the way with its Positive Action Group on Research and Evidence.

“The problem is trying to get quality evidence of an intervention working and trying to create a virtuous circle in the way the government views that and subsequently facilitates or funds follow-up actions,” Dr Lee said.

He also warned: “There’s a lot of risk aversion in HMPPS and the MoJ in general. If we can’t overcome that, we’re not going to make any progress. A bit of risk taking is required and I can’t think of anything better than the use of sport.”

Professor Meek, an Alliance of Sport Steering Group member, has conducted extensive research into sport in prisons and co-wrote our major forthcoming Ministry of Justice-commissioned Review of Sport in Criminal Justice.

She told Committee chair Damian Collins that, unfortunately, sport provision in prisons is currently “something of a lottery”, adding: “There are pockets of good practice going on across the Estate but they are certainly not widespread.

“We know that going into prison with a range of programmes – be they arts, music or sport-based – are some of the most effective ways of engaging with some of the most difficult-to-engage prisoners.

“The staff need to have the time and resource to support those activities, and they also need the leadership to encourage them to bring in community organisations and provide room in the day-to-day prison routine to support these sport-based programmes.

“The first of the 12 recommendations [in the forthcoming Review] is that we need a co-ordinated approach which encompasses health, education and sport as part of a wellbeing strategy.

“PE departments, in my experience, have some of the best staff I’ve seen in the Estate, but they can be very isolated unless they have a governor on board who is supportive of a sports agenda. They can be sidelined time and time again and can often be called up to cover staff shortages elsewhere with the gym being closed entirely.”

Supporting John McAvoy’s experience within the rowing club environment, Rosie added: “We know from desistance theory that one of the most important protective factors after release from prison and desisting from further offending is a pro-social positive peer group.

“We all know sport can provide that, be it a team, mentor or coach relationship. That can replace alternative anti-social influences on someone’s life. Someone has to be motivated to make that change and that’s where sport can be particularly influential.”