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How rugby is changing lives inside a Hong Kong prison

A new prison rugby project in Hong Kong, set up with the help of the Alliance of Sport, aims to link young offenders with vocational training, education and employment post-release, as well as offering them supportive peer groups, values and integrity. Robbie McRobbie, CEO of Hong Kong Rugby Union, tells us how the project came about – and reveals some notable early outcomes. 

 

The Hong Kong Rugby Union Community Foundation (HKRUCF) was established in March 2013 with the aim of using rugby and the HKRU brand to bring about positive change within our community by tackling social issues.

This move into the “sport-for-change” sector was partly inspired by the work of a local charity, Operation Breakthrough, that was set up by volunteer police officers and uses sport as a medium to help at-risk youth make better life choices. Because of the success of Breakthrough, addressing juvenile crime was one of the focuses of the HKRUCF right from the start. 

We introduced a programme called “Don’t Drop the Ball” in conjunction with the Police Crime Prevention Bureau, working in local secondary schools to introduce the students to rugby and encouraging them to follow a healthy lifestyle and avoid drugs, triads and crime. This is an officially recognised Youth Initiative for the Police, New Territories South Region. 

We then started a programme in the Tuen Mun Boys’ Home, which gave youngsters in custody an opportunity to learn the basics of touch rugby. They were encouraged to join the Operation Breakthrough club once they were released. 

At the same time, through Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and Beyond Sport, we’d had an opportunity to meet James Mapstone (Alliance of Sport Co-Founder and Chair) and got to see some of the ethos behind the Alliance of Sport. That inspired us to take the next step and see if we could actually get a programme running inside a prison. 

The Hong Kong Correctional Services Department (CSD), who run the prisons, have a strong staff rugby club, with both men’s and women’s touch teams and a number of contact rugby players in the combined Disciplined Services side, so they were very supportive when we floated this idea. 

CSD had recently been involved with a study together with a local university, which showed that in 2016, 3,366 youngsters aged 20 or below were arrested for crimes, and each crime costs society HK$239,000 (around £24,000). 

It was agreed that we would run a pilot scheme at the Cape Collinson Correctional Institution, which has young offenders aged 16-23 years, and we commenced an initial eight-session introductory touch rugby course in August 2015. 

Hong Kong Rugby Union Community Foundation

The programme has been well received by both the young men and also the CSD staff. It is now an established annual course at Cape Collinson and its success encouraged CSD to suggest we expand and run a similar initiative at the Pik Uk Correctional Institution. This kicked off in late 2018. 

This time the HKRU CF coaches and CSD staff introduced refereeing training into the programme to encourage some of the participants to look at full-time or part-time vocational opportunities upon their release. 

HKRU already employ one former prisoner, and this is a link that we hope to develop further going forward. 

CSD have a very good post-release programme, with all youngsters offered jobs. During their incarceration they are given strong encouragement to pursue either further education or vocational training. 

We believe that the rugby clubs can offer a very positive environment for young men and women from troubled backgrounds – a supportive peer group, opportunity to build a new social network, and of course an emphasis on values and integrity. 

There is still much work to be done to “join the dots” with all this. We hope to expand into a women’s institution, and as yet we don’t have an evaluation process that can quantify the impact of the programme. 

However, we are encouraged by the work being done by the Alliance of Sport, by Saracens Foundation’s excellent prison initiative, and by the success that Operation Breakthrough has enjoyed – 24 graduates of the programme have gone on to become police officers – and one has even joined the Correctional Services Department!

  • Alliance of Sport Chair and Co-Founder, James Mapstone, commented: “We are delighted that our work has inspired Robbie to expand HKRUCF’s programmes into the prisons in Hong Kong. We congratulate them on some of the early outcomes, look forward to following their progress and are committed to sharing their success and providing ongoing support as required.” 

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