Celebrating and promoting the best in UK prisons, probation and youth justice

CHRIS BOWDITCH, DAVID HAYES, CHRIS JONES & MATTHEW WILLIAMS (HMP/YOI Parc)

CHRIS BOWDITCH, DAVID HAYES, CHRIS JONES & MATTHEW WILLIAMS (HMP/YOI Parc)

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COMMENDEES 2015-16: Chris, David, Chris and Matthew, who together comprise the gym team at HMP/YOI Parc, are Commended for their contribution both to the health and wellbeing of prisoners, and to the wider prison regime.

Matthew WilliamsChristopher Bowditch, David Hayes, Christopher Jones and Matthew Williams [pictured] together comprise the pioneering Gym Team at HMP/YOI Parc.

Their initial nominator, Parc’s Deputy Director Lisette Saunders, explains how they have delivered real change: “They have worked passionately and in collaboration with other departments and agencies, both inside and outside of the prison, to support and provide opportunity for prisoners. As a result the prison is a safer place and the team’s vision and belief in the power of sport to work as an intervention has allowed many to turn their lives around. What they have done is to integrate the sports department into the very fabric of the prison using its popularity to promote equality and diversity, promote healthy drug-free lifestyles, and offer an opportunity for reparation to society through charity events.”

She says “the way in which the gym has championed community inclusion by challenging homophobia and racism has been so effective. The formation of a gay prisoner football team is, I believe, a world first.  The estate is a safer environment for those who live here giving them the freedom to take hold of their lives and work for a better future as citizens in society.”

Lisette concludes by saying “the purpose of any project in prison is to reform and there have been numerous examples of men, having engaged with the gym, leaving Parc in a totally different mind-set… A notable example being one man who upon release became a community football coach with Cardiff City FC. This role involves teaching the same disciplines he learnt in prison to disadvantaged young people in the Welsh valleys. It was so inspirational when he returned to Parc in his professional role to work with prisoners that he had only left a few months previously. A perfect role model of what you can achieve as an individual, and a perfect example of a progressive integrated Gym team that has put rehabilitation at the top of its agenda.”

Phil Forder is Parc’s Local Butler Trust Champion as well as their Arts and Community Lead. Unusually, Phil is also a Butler Trust winner this year* (and indeed, his write-up makes a good ‘bookend’ with this commendation for the Gym Team [read it here].

As Phil explains, “The Gym department at HMP/YOI Parc has undergone a massive transformation. Time has seen it develop from a first class sporting facility (which it still is) to an inspirational intervention, bringing about changes in perceptions and challenging antisocial thought patterns – all through the delivery of sport.  Under the guidance of Matthew William, Gym Manager, the department has used sport as the medium to change, nurture and support some of the most difficult prisoners.” Phil notes that while while “there are many positive strands to the way the Gym works,” there are three outstanding areas.

First, the use of sport “to challenge discrimination and promote understanding – LGBT Football. Noting that “the Equality Act 2010 legally ensures that the nine protected characteristics** are safe from discrimination, harassment and victimisation, the sporting world, unfortunately, still harbours such things as racism and homophobia amongst both players and supporters alike. In prisons these mindsets can thrive. This leaves many marginalised people feeling that the Gym and team sports especially are not for them. Through the gym staff there is a policy whereby marginalised individuals are made to feel welcome through a ‘buddying’ system. This has made many attend sport that would otherwise have stayed away.”

Phil says that “under Matt’s guidance, we have seen both Gay Football and Rugby teams come into Parc to play against staff, main location prisoners and an LGBT prisoner football team (the first in the world).” Further, “Several BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] sports personnel have also visited” including Linvoy Primus, Xinxan Brooke, Mamaa Molitika and Fraser Campbell. Meanwhile Parc has enjoyed visits from “several female sportswomen who break the stereotypes” like the boxer, Louise Walsh, and the powerlifter Michaela Breeze, as well as a wheelchair rugby team called The Pirates. “This initiative is so effective in breaking down prejudice and promoting equality,” says Phil.

Another core element to the Gym Team’s approach has been “Promoting responsibility and social awareness” by fundraising for local community projects. Prisoners have raised over £7000 from their own funds in the last year and, as Phil says, “in promoting such events prisoners can find a way to contribute something back to society as well promoting a sense of self value and worth.” Notable examples include ‘Cymorth y Cerys’ – over £1000 for a young girl that needed £70,000 for life changing operation, ‘Western Beacons Mountain Rescue’ – £800 for a local volunteer rescue service, ‘Look Out for Lexi’ – £700 to help pay for intense physiotherapy for a young girl with severe disabilities in the community, ‘Many Tears Animal Rescue’ – £230 and £900 for a local Barnardo’s group.

Another initiative by the team involved developing healthy life style changes and self discipline through Non Contact Rugby, Get Started in Football, and a Non Contact Boxing programme “as an effective way to introduce regimes that would require prisoners to sign up to a healthy living programme and demonstrate that this is in place. This has included subjects such as diet, sexual health, addressing substance misuse and yoga to combat stress.”

The nomination makes clear how effective the individuals on the team have gelled, with each bringing something to the greater whole. Talking of Matt, Phil says that under his guidance “the Gym Department has moved forward immensely. His enthusiasm and drive are infectious. Matt is much respected by both other members of staff and prisoners alike. He is a very visible and accessible man in the prison and is always available to hear another’s points of view, taking in diverse opinions before moulding many new, pioneering programmes. Matt is a key figure in the success of Parc prison.”

Phil calls David “one of the most helpful people in the prison. If he sees someone struggling with something he will assist – there is no need to ask. This is true for prisoners and staff. His generous nature has seen many offenders succeed. Through David’s intervention many have gone on to better lives. His nature combined with Matt’s leadership is a fantastic example of teamwork and co-operation.”

Turning to Christopher Jones, Phil recalls that “when setting up the LGBT football team Christopher volunteered for the job. He is not LGBT! This could have been seen from a sporting perspective as unfulfilling as none of the team had ever engaged in sport before. Chris, however, gave it his all and transformed them not only into a team but also gave them a sense of belonging and support. Through his example many others have seen what is possible and been inspired.”

Phil describes how “Chris Bowditch, (with David Hayes) headed up the ‘Non-Contact Boxing’ programme,” noting that “Chris has seen how the disciplines of sport can transform the lifestyles of youngsters in socially deprived areas, awash with drugs and crime. With his guidance and support many prisoners have benefitted and changed tracks. He has been a positive role model for many.”

Prisoners agree. Henry*** wrote in his testimonial “Nobody can dispute that HMP Parc are head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to highlighting equality and the protected characteristics. There will often be events here highlighting key issues such as sexual health, LGBT matches with local teams, Black History month and wheelchair rugby. The team are always conscious of providing a safe environment for all who train at the gym but also go beyond this with the special day events which are put on in an effort to broaden people’s understanding and acceptance of others who are different.”

He continues, “On a personal level, I feel it should definitely be noted that some of the team who work here at the gym go well above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to helping boys after release. The team have been known to link ex-offenders up with outside teams, going out of their way to pick them up and take them to club training and games in an attempt to provide some stability and structure upon release. This dedication to sports and helping others sets the gym team apart from any others that I have experienced in the seven prisons that I have visited. Regular successful charity raising events for charities such as Barnardo’s and Cancer Research further illustrate the general spirit that permeates the gymnasium here at Parc of helping others. I would like to thank all of the staff at the gym here at HMP Parc for the fantastic service and facilities that they have provided for me throughout my sentence as well as on behalf of everyone else who has benefited from the hard work undertaken by everyone who works at and attends the gym here at HMP Parc.”

Another striking example testimonial comes from Toby Guest, a former prisoner who has achieved much – and recognition in the wider media:

“I arrived at HMP Parc in September 2012 having been sentenced to 32 months for drug offences. At this time I became very shy and withdrawn. The gym staff could not have been any more helpful to me throughout my time at HMP Parc, I felt they all took a genuine interest and belief in me as a person, this gave me a great confidence boost. Over the 22 months I spent at HMP Parc, I built a great rapport with the gym staff which I am lucky enough to still have to this day due to being employed off the back of a Princes Trust ‘Get Started’ course in Partnership with Cardiff City Football. This course helped me develop my confidence to communicate and facilitate a coaching session to a peer group. The course also helped me develop the skills set to interact and engage in discussions in a professional manner. I also developed my knowledge and understanding of football, nutrition and first aid.”

Toby continues, “I was persuaded to take part in this course by the gym staff and as a result I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity of employment upon my release; I feel I owe this to the gym staff as I would not have taken part in the course if they had not taken the time to persuade me that it was in my best interest. I have now been a full time employee at Cardiff City Football Club Community and Education Foundation for the past 18 Months and completely turned my life around.”

Parc’s Director, Janet Wallsgrove, calls Toby “a notable example and ambassador… a young man who came to prison three years ago and who, through his involvement with the gym, upon release started working for Cardiff City FC as a Community Inclusion coach. Rather than choosing a more ‘glitzy’ career he chose to work in deprived areas of South Wales with youngsters on the brink of prison sentencing. He also returned to Parc to teach prisoners –including some he had previously been incarcerated with. His example was recognised by HRH the Prince of Wales, who visited the Gym department this year where the Prince witnessed a ‘Get Started With Football’ course in the prison. Toby is a role model for many others.”

Janet calls Matt and the gym team “role models for staff and prisoners,” describing how under Matt’s leadership, “the gym team at HMP/YOI Parc have developed into a key element of our reducing reoffending agenda. Matt and the gym team have worked tirelessly to implement change and champion innovative practice in the gym. Sport is an excellent way of breaking down barriers and promoting an inclusive environment. The gym has championed inclusively by challenging all types of discrimination.  The foundation of a gay prisoner football team is an excellent example of this. Matt and the team have helped individual prisoners to turn their lives around. I attended the Prince’s Trust Award event in Cardiff and was extremely proud when one of the winners spoke passionately about the fact his life had been turned around during his time at HMP/YOI Parc.  He is now in full time employment with Cardiff City Community and Education Foundation and is a positive role model for young people in the community.”

Internationally renowned activist and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had this to say about Parc’s gay prisoner football team: “Congratulations on the formation of your team. It’s great to have gay visibility in the prison and on the football pitch. You are pioneers in terms of prison football. Bravo!”

One example of fund-raising – over £2000 for a small girl in the community with Multiple Sclerosis who needed specialist surgery – prompted this letter from her parents: “We can’t thank everyone enough for your support. We honestly feel truly blessed to have such a special daughter and to live in such a fantastic and kind hearted community.”

The team notes that “working with prisoners on a daily basis enables embedded thought patterns to be subtly changed”, describing the goal of the gym being “to use its contact with prisoners to make them safer upon release and encourage them to become responsible members of society. The prison can be a golden opportunity to change people. If they are released as better people then it’s a win-win situation.” They add that it is an “often overlooked fact that the more outside agencies you bring in, the [more] perceptions of prisons and prisoners also change.” They cite a recent visit from the Cardiff Dragons football team, where their Chairman, Ali Mahony, said “This match was an enlightening experience and goes to show yet again, that we’re more than just a football club and prisoners are people just like us.”

The team’s individual descriptions provide further insights. Matthew Williams says that “I have lived in South Wales all my life and like many a young man I have always been passionate about rugby – it is in my blood. I have played for various teams, but Maesteg Celtic RFC is where I played the most. During that time I witnessed much homophobic banter and bullying take place and saw potentially great players turn away and leave. When Gareth Thomas came out recently, a man I much admired as a great player, and he spoke about the struggles he had had to endure, I was deeply moved. I am not gay but I could empathise as to what he – and many others – had gone through and realised it wasn’t right.” Matt adds that “as the head of the Gym team I was determined to do what I could to challenge the attitude of the prisoners and indeed some of the staff and bring in change. I developed a Sports Compact that all new prisoners wishing to get on in the gym had to sign. Developed with Lou Englefield of PrideSports, this Compact is a pact to challenge homophobia and support openly gay men to be accepted.”

He describes how “in conjunction with the LGBT Lead, I invited in and organised first a gay football, and then gay rugby teams, to visit Parc and play against staff and prisoners. At first the prisoners just saw them as visiting teams coming in to play – it wasn’t until afterwards they realised that they were in fact gay. It prompted the question ‘Are you all gay then? But you don’t look it.’ This 30 minute interaction with gay men was worth a thousand words in normalising and challenging stereotypes. Also the prison has also had gay rugby referee Nigel Owens in to speak about his career.  Unbeknown to most this session was more about inclusion and acceptance than rugby although those there would never have known.”

David Hayes said this about his own experience with the team. “As Deputy Manager of the Gym I have been involved in all aspects of the intervention work taking place here at Parc. I passionately believe that this is the right approach for the future and a key way forward to making prisons work. My particular interest has been sparked by my father – who recently passed away – who had many elderly friends, many of whom were disabled in one way or another. Their passion for sport was second to none and I would often accompany them to football matches etc. and be party to their enthusiasm.”

In this context, David explains that “Gyms are notorious for being the realm of the ultra fit and if there were ‘sessions’ for older members they were always separate. I wanted to take the recent public interest in the Paralympics and bring that into the prison and make the gym more inclusive. I invited several Paralympians to Parc, but my proudest moment was bringing in a wheelchair rugby team – The Pirates – to play against prisoners. Once in wheelchairs the prisoners realised how amazingly skilled their opponents were as they got beaten repeatedly. A feeling of respect was definitely the result and the stereotype of someone with a disability was banished. In a similar way I have overseen the development of sport and gymnastics for our more elderly prisoners, which has led me into the world of Healthcare and Physiotherapy again this is ground-breaking work which is much needed and shows that the gym is an area of prison ripe for further exploration into the realm of rehabilitation.”

Christopher Jones shared his experience: “It was four or five years ago I accepted to compete in a ‘Three Peaks Challenge’ and run up Ben Nevis, Scafell and Snowdon in 24 hours.  Although this was a huge physical challenge the sense of accomplishment was phenomenal afterwards. However, what made it all the more memorable was the feeling I got knowing that what I had done had raised over £500 for Cancer Research Wales. It validated what I had done as I knew I had helped someone and possibly saved a life. That feeling has stayed with me ever since and I realised if we could bring this kind of feeling into the rehabilitative work we do in the gym, it could be a ‘double whammy’ with both a charity and the prisoners benefitting.”

He goes on to tell this touching story: “I am a dad and have two small boys. They are the most precious things I have. When we were approached by parents from the local community who had a child that was severely disabled I saw this as the chance to realise what I had been thinking – to do sporting events to help others and more poignantly possibly those who would never enjoy the thrill of sport themselves. There have been several events that we have organised mainly for children and the most recent as such for a little girl called Tia-Marie, a two year old who is paralysed from the neck down. She needs a lot of special care – but most critically new wheelchairs to match her growth which cost considerable amounts, and her mother is having to cope alone because Tia’s dad is in prison. In fact he is in Parc. The prisoners had a tug of war competition that raised over £500 for a fellow prisoner’s child. I’m still coming to grips with the enormity of this gesture.”

Christopher Bowditch’s background also played a role in his contribution to the team, as he reports: “Before I came into the prison service I had a career in the armed forces. It was here that I started boxing and although many people who have not tried it think it violent they don’t realise the sport is based on strict self discipline and governed by strong rules. In the valleys where I grew up, many young people lack this discipline and their chaotic lives lead them down the road that often ends in jail. I see the army and boxing as the two things in my life that I believe kept me out of going that same way possibly. I would encourage the young men I work with to take up the sport which is not just about sparring – we only do Non Contact Boxing in the prison – but also about diet, healthy living and being drug-free.”

He explains that he delivers the Non Contact Boxing course and so far “10 participants have gained qualifications in 3 modules of the ASDAN Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (COPE) which is the equivalent to a full GCSE. The non-contact qualification recognises and accredits the achievements and skills of people in the sport of Amateur boxing. The remaining modules can be completed by the students upon release. All students will be linked with their local amateur boxing club in they wish to complete additional modules of the course.  This to me is a great intervention and I have invited in many examples of local champions, including World Champion Lee Selby, to motivate the men. I also ensure that upon release the men are connected with accredited boxing clubs that carry on the training programme on release.”

Some remarks by Professor Rosie Meek, Head of the School of Law at the Royal Holloway, University of London, after the recent publication of her book ‘Sport in Prison: Exploring the Role of Physical Activity in Correctional Settings’, help illuminate the distinction of the team’s work. She said “All my examples of good practice were from Parc [and] my publishers said to me: go find some other examples as this isn’t broad enough. I replied that ‘I’d looked extensively and that Parc stood out by a mile – it wasn’t because I hadn’t researched other prisons, but Parc was the best.”

[* NB To save Phil Forder any embarrassment, Parc Director Janet Wallsgrove undertook his nomination.]

[** Age, Disability, Gender reassignment, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Pregnancy and Maternity, Race, Religion and Belief, Sex, Sexual Orientation. More here.]

[*** Name changed to protect identity]

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