Can rowing help prisoners rehabilitate?

Imogen Walsh is a former World Champion rower for GB who competed at the World Championships as a lightweight. She works for Fulham Reach Boat Club as Prisons Manager. You can find Imogen on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

“Representing your country in sport is something for “other” people, “special” people, definitely not someone like me”. This was my mindset for many years. So when, in my late 20s, I tried out for the British Rowing team and was selected, it challenged my outlook on what people can do and become if given certain opportunities and encouragement. Five years rowing for the British team saw many highs, and some definite lows – namely, losing my seat in the only Olympic boat for lightweight women, and so failing to go to the Olympics.

After a few more years of punishing my body and a big surgery later, I had a major re-think about what it is about sport that drew me to it in the first place. And after becoming friends with John McAvoy, former armed robber turned professional athlete (his book, Redemption, is well worth a read), I thought about how sport could be used to achieve outcomes that are nothing to do with physical metrics, podiums, and selection.

I now run the project Boats not Bars (through Fulham Reach Boat Club), which provides rowing courses in prisons. Ultimately, the course aims to reduce reoffending, which is estimated to cost the taxpayer a staggering £18.1bn per year, and an incalculable cost in wasted human potential. Whilst the notion of rowing preventing reoffending may sound far-fetched, the positive impact of sporting interventions on reducing the likelihood of reoffending, has been well researched and documented. Rowing in particular is a sport that many participants may have thought is “not for them”, and the realisation that in fact it’s accessible, has a subtle effect on mindset around what opportunities might be out there.

The project works principally in four ways:

  1. Changing self-identity, and building confidence in setting and achieving goals

Prisoners often feel that their life after release (and perhaps before incarceration, too) is pre-determined. Providing the chance to take control of something whilst in prison, shows the participant that they have agency and can create their own identity.

“the tension between perceived autonomy and the role of social factors” plays a large part in the likelihood of reoffending” Rosie Meek, 2007

  1. “Soft skills”

Participating in a structured program, within a group, teaches participants key skills such as communication, discipline, goal setting, time management, and teamwork.

“Engaging in structured programmes can help to teach offenders self-discipline, teamwork and leadership – crucial skills for a successful and crime-free life in the community” Justice minister Edward Agar, 2018

  1. “Hard skills” i.e. qualifications

Literacy and academic achievement rates are low amongst the prison population. By engaging participants in a familiar and positive setting (i.e. the gym), individuals are more likely to take the next step, onto taking a coaching qualification, which itself is a stepping stone to further engagement in learning.

  1. Community engagement and “through the gate” support

Building skills and self-belief whilst in prison is one thing; making those changes on “the outside” is another. Many former prisoners say that what is pivotal in making positive life changes, is having a community who can support them in their new life path on release. By building a relationship with participants in prison, the links are set up to provide this community on the outside (free club membership is given). If possible, day release visits to the club are arranged whilst the participant is still serving time, to further ease the pathway. In some sites, a family day at the end of their rowing course is arranged, so that participants can show their new skills to friends and family, and the participant’s nearest and dearest also become part of the journey. Additionally, we can signpost and support prison leavers to employment and training opportunities.

The Boats not Bars program is entirely reliant on charitable donations to exist. If you feel able to make a donation of any amount whatsoever, we at FRBC, the participants in the program, and those connected to the participant would be incredibly grateful. The ripple effect of the program reaches far beyond the individual themselves. To make a donation, please follow this link: Friends of Fulham Reach Boat Club