Rhinos charity at forefront of work with Leeds prisoners to reduce re-offending

Dan Busfield, of the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, works with prisoners in the gym. Picture: Tony Johnson
Dan Busfield, of the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, works with prisoners in the gym. Picture: Tony Johnson

Putting offenders behind bars is a tried and tested way to punish the guilty and protect the public, but the newly launched HM Prison and Probation Service is also expected to tackle the more complex task of reducing 
re-offending.

Here in Leeds, a scheme inspired by one police officer’s love of rugby league aims to do just that by working with prisoners at two local prisons in the months before their release.

PC John Thornton outside HMP Wealstun in Wetherby. Picture: Tony Johnson.

PC John Thornton outside HMP Wealstun in Wetherby. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Onside combines classroom-based work designed to develop personal and communication skills with rugby drills and other physical activities which promote teamwork and problem solving.

It began to take shape last year when PC John Thornton joined the Integrated Offender Management Team based at HMP Leeds in Armley.

His predecessor had been building links with the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, the rugby league club’s official charity, and PC Thornton quickly realised there was real potential for them to work together on a more substantial project.

“We’ve worked around police arresting, prisons detaining,” he said. “However, when the time was up we didn’t do anything to improve that person’s behaviour when they came out. That’s crucial to making fewer victims.

I believe interactive courses such as this really help to rehabilitate offenders, giving them more self-confidence and increased self-esteem.

Wealstun Governor Diane Pellew

“We want to make people feel better about themselves, do something productive and reduce victims of crime.”

Having played rugby league as a youngster himself, PC Thornton thought the sport could offer a way to win the attention and interest of offenders.

Foundation partnership manager Dan Busfield said: “From his love of sport, and rugby league in particular, John understands we have a particular pull.

“A lot of these men that are in custody are from the inner city areas which have rugby clubs local to them so they’re very familiar with the sport. We knew we’d got the engagement but we needed to build a programme.”

Tutor Janet Sylvester puts the course participants through their paces. Picture: Tony Johnson

Tutor Janet Sylvester puts the course participants through their paces. Picture: Tony Johnson

One of the challenges for project tutor Janet Sylvester, who designed the nine-week programme, was in creating a course which would be suitable for groups of offenders with varying levels of literacy and formal education.

“It’s covering a lot of different things – personal development with regards to relationships, barriers that they’re going face on the outside,” she said.

Some activities focus on areas such as building a CV or job interviews, but it is also about changing the way those taking part respond to setbacks and view themselves.

Ms Sylvester said: “We try to get them to focus on their skill set rather than a piece of paper. In here they do get the chance to access of lot of educational qualifications to bring that on though.”

Janet Sylvester leads one of the classroom activities. Picture: Tony Johnson

Janet Sylvester leads one of the classroom activities. Picture: Tony Johnson

While some of the participants have limited reading and writing abilities, others have formal qualifications or have run their own businesses.

There are no restrictions on the type of offender but generally they are younger men with less than six months left to serve on their sentences.

Where the groups of up to 10 men find common ground is that they have shown a desire to make a change in their lives, sometimes as the result of becoming a parent or knowing they have a child on the way.

This was the case with some of those in the most recent group at HMP Wealstun, who were halfway through the nine-week programme when the YEP visited to watch part of a session.

“This group wanted to look more at budgeting and relationships,” Ms Sylvester said. “I’m bringing additional stuff into the programme to meet the group’s needs.”

The two-hour session began in the classroom where the group were asked to give feedback on what they thought about Onside so far, with the flipchart quickly filling with words like helpful, opportunity, bond, practical, interactive, communication and new start.

Ms Sylvester said: “They worked in small groups last week and then had to bring their discussion to the table. Their homework was to prepare a talk for two minutes about anything they want. Next week they’re going to be interviewing each other for a job and giving feedback.”

One of the activities in week five was based on the game Spin The Bottle, with the person selected by the bottle having to pick a card, read out the statement and say whether the behaviour described was positive, negative or somewhere in between.

As the group debated how context and intent influenced how a behaviour should be judged, it was clear that they had become more confident in talking about their own ideas and experiences with both the tutors and the rest of the group.

“The two prisons we work in are quite different set-ups but they groups have formed quite good bonds and friendships,” Ms Sylvester said. “They don’t necessarily know each other when they come together because they’re on different wings. That’s quite a big step.”

After an hour or so in the classroom, the session moved out into the adjoining sports hall for a series of physical activities.

There were various drills based around rugby, circuit training and team challenges, such as a relay using small sections of drainpipe to transport a tennis ball across the hall.

PC Thornton said the response from those who have taken part in Onside to date had been encouraging.

“What we do find is that prisoners like structure,” he said. “They obviously want support but they like structure. When they do something, they do it wholeheartedly.”

Working with the offender management team and the prisons has also been a positive experience for the foundation.

Mr Busfield said: “In terms of the relationships with the prisons, it’s really refreshing.

“It’s quite a bold step to allow an external agency in to work with prisoners.”

Wealstun Governor Diane Pellew said: “I am really pleased with the progress the prisoners have made on this initiative and I appreciate Janet’s work with the lads.

“I believe interactive courses such as this really help to rehabilitate offenders, giving them more self-confidence and increased self-esteem.”

Beyond the walls of the two prisons, the programme has also attracted interest from the Ministry of Justice.

The foundation was recently invited to Westminster for a discussion about sport and physical activity in prisons, which was hosted by Dr Philip Lee, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Victims, Youth and Family Justice.

Critics of the modern prison system might frown upon offenders deriving any enjoyment from courses like Onside, but the focus for those behind the programme is on the potential future benefits to society.

“We’re doing all these things because the ultimate aim is to make them more employable,” Mr Busfield said.

“At the foundation, we cover every agenda from elderly people to going into primary schools. Why should we miss out a section of the community?

“If we’re trying to make communities better, we should cover every aspect. It’s not just about the lads in here, it’s about their families.”

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