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Pete Bell: UK must learn from Dutch approach to sport and rehabilitation

Pete Bell, founder of Step Out Stay Out, was inspired by the recent Football Works Festival at De Karelskamp prison in the Netherlands. The event included an international football tournament inside the prison walls, as well as talks and workshops by clubs and programmes in the UK, Holland and Spain on best practice in using football for social development. Pete, who was among the invited presenters, looks back at what he learned from the trip.


When I first walked into De Karelskamp just outside Almelo, I was blown away by the sight of a five-a-side competition with a barbeque and a DJ spinning songs, with everyone chatting to each other, as if the prison were a local village green! 

As the event progressed, it was impossible not to compare the work being done in the justice system in England and Wales with the Dutch attitude towards rehabilitation. They seem to have scaled it up to a completely different level. 

The Football Works Festival, jointly organised by the European Football for Development Network (EFDN) and the Dutch Justice Department, brought together some of Europe’s best-regarded practitioners in using football to turn offenders’ lives around for the better. 

Pete Bell

I was one of a collection of experts offering insights on how we use football as a tool for offender rehabilitation, employability and reintegration into society. As an ex-offender myself, I think I was able to offer a fresh perspective – and I got a ton of insight back in return from the other attendees.

I got the chance to speak to the Chelsea Foundation and the Saints Foundation (Southampton FC), who both entered teams in the competition with players who had been on their football-based employability programmesJamie Lawrence, an ex-offender who played in the Premier League, was there with the Chelsea guys and I’m arranging to visit their project and hopefully HMP Feltham soon to exchange some ideas. 

Professor Rosie Meek (an Alliance of Sport Trustee) was there to present her findings from the recent Review of Sport in Justice and I found a talk by the Barcelona Foundation’s Yolanda Antin particularly interesting. She highlighted the impact of their inclusion programmes at youth detention centres, such as improved health and reduced incidents of violence. 

l-r : Yoland Antin, Prof. Rosie Meek, Pete Bell and Nico Kempf from DFB-Stiftung Sepp Herberger.

We heard about really progressive schemes outside of football too, such as the Dutch Cell Dogs (who allow shelter dogs to be trained by detainees), Serbian prisons with hotels staffed by prisoners and inmates being trained to give horse riding lessons and manufacture farm equipment – all solid programmes gearing up offenders properly for release back into society. 

I spoke to the governor of De Karelskamp jail and he was so open and relaxed about the event. He said it would empower people to look at ways to achieve change and improve the circumstances, culture and futures of people in their care. 

In contrast, I’ve experienced so many barriers and obstacles to the work I do in prisons in England. I’m forever pushing and pushing just to achieve tiny steps forward. Looking at the activity around De Karelskamp, I thought, would anyone dare take responsibility for a football tournament inside an English jail? The logistics would be huge and I doubt it would ever happen, but the Dutch and the EFDN are so progressive. Their culture is like a round table – how can we help you? Where do we go from here? Obviously, there has to be caution as to who we let into our jails and assurances around their impact, but Holland was a breath of fresh air. 

Next year, if invited back, I’d like to take a Step Out Stay Out team of ex-offenders and those on the fringes of the justice system to play in the tournament. In the meantime, I want to expand my football programmes including futsal at HMP Lowdham Grange and other jails, build on my community cohesion event ‘Jumpers 4 Goalposts’ in Nottingham and continue my mentoring work for the FA.  

I always try to provide added value in whatever I do. So, for example, I’m arranging for ex-pro Gifton Noel-Williams to visit Lowdham Grange and share some practical sessions, as well as inviting a university team to play a team of inmates again. If I can, in whatever way, offer the guys a couple of hours where they’re not sitting in a cell thinking about their sentences, then I’ll always do it. I really want to make a difference. 

That’s why I was so on board with the spirit and philosophy of the event in Holland. It was an excellent opportunity to mix and mingle with practitioners making a real impact across Europe. And it was a real honour and a privilege for people to show interest in my story. 

Read more about Pete Bell’s journey from offender to coach and mentor here.