It is cold. It’s not just the winter. It is the concrete, the iron bars, and the loneliness. In prison, coldness is intense and penetrates the bones and the mind. It freezes life in a time in which survival is the goal. Warming up can provide a break, and that is why 24 members of the Tehuelches XV team from Detention Unit 11 in Neuquén (a province in the Argentinian Patagonia) go out to the rugby field to put their bodies and their future in motion.

Eduardo got up early, as he does every Sunday when he has to go to U11. He put on warm clothes, grabbed two bags of tangerines, and drove to the Parque Industrial neighborhood. Everything was at a standstill. For the city, it was a day of rest; for him, it was a day of commitment.

Once outside the penal, he waited for a while until Juan Pablo, Flavio and Thiago arrived. To enter a prison, one must cross an infinite number of doors. After the first one, a woman asked them for their IDs. At the second door, another woman asked for their cell phones and car keys. In the third one, a man said that “they were already taking them out” and invited them to follow his steps.

Intramural rugby is a practice of resistance to prison logic. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

A large open-air space opened up. There, some animals welcomed them. The black-painted horse tried to touch the sky with its hooves and a guanaco in the mist stared at them with its cold, iron eyes.

“After spending the morning in training, Sunday at home has a different flavor. You have a different appreciation for the snacks and the barbecue with the family. For us, it is also a learning experience,” said Juan Pablo while adjusting the collar of his blue jersey, with the symbol of Neuquén Rugby Club on the chest.

They passed a cement soccer field, and in the background, a group of players could be seen carrying red tarps, dressed in shorts and long colored socks, some wearing their typical striped jerseys: light blue and white.

The recidivism rate in Argentina is 65%, and among Espartanos participants, 5%. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

They met the prisoners in front of the gate and greeted each other. Eduardo pointed at the field in the background. In five years of work and perseverance, they managed to remove the stones and banish the arid soil of the plateau. He said that at the beginning, they ended up full of dirt, scratched by the rough stones, but little by little, the grass advanced on the land, like the Tehuelches.

Putting a team together

This story began in Buenos Aires in March 2009, when the lawyer Eduardo “Coco” Oderigo visited the maximum security prison for the first time. His greatest perception was hopelessness and days later, he returned with a rugby ball, trained about 15 people deprived of their freedom, and created the team Los Espartanos.

In 2016, the Espartanos Foundation was created. The experience allowed them to consolidate a social reintegration programme that helps lower recidivism rates from 65% to 5% and is changing the lives of entire families and society.

The Spartanos model is used in 47 prisons in Argentina and 13 others in the region. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

Today, Espartanos works in 65 penal units in 21 provinces of Argentina and seven countries around the world. Currently, there are 3,030 players and more than 650 volunteers accompanying them. In Neuquén, since 2019, the local team has been called Tehuelches XV.

“We started with a joint effort. A rugby team had never functioned in prison, and many things had to be adapted. The players had never played, and the coaches had never coached adults who did not know how to play. Luckily, we could do it, and it continues in 47 prisons in our country and 13 abroad,” said Eduardo, and repeated, “Luckily.” But there was more than luck.

That day started with some complications. The air pump didn’t seem to want to work, and they were trying to find a solution. It was foggy. In the centre of the field, the players moved with speed to start, and, in the margins, sheltered penitentiaries were grouped in pairs, holding on to their Ithaca shotguns and looking serious. Then there was the wall, the barbed wire and the man walking on it, coming and going.

The gate was heard, and a few more players joined in. They arrived in handcuffs because they belonged to the maximum security pavilion. With these, there were 24 players. Four of the seven coaches were present because Eduardo said they rotated every Sunday.

Tehuelches XV is the first rugby team made up entirely of people deprived of liberty in Patagonia. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

Flavio has been collaborating in administrative matters for three years. He talked about the importance of going there every Sunday. “There are many mixed feelings. But being here, I realised that it is not unreasonable to be in prison. For example, you can kill someone in an accident. I believe that you have to give another chance,” he said while tying up the protections on the H (the goal posts) that “the upholsterer” made. They are red and painted with the image of Patoruzito, who, from the post, seems to give his cheerful wink.

To the field

“The tackle is received between the nipples and the hips; that’s why you have to strengthen the abdominal part,” Juan shouted, and everyone in line did the exercises. Then he stood up, asked one of them to come closer, made a move, and knocked him down. The young man from the floor said: “Hey, I want to see you inside ”, and they all started laughing.

More than 80 players have passed through Spartanos, some have stopped playing, and several have regained their freedom. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

Behind the field, there were some scattered trees and a house. From there came out a man on crutches, thin, with one leg missing. When he saw them, he stretched his chin to the sky, saying hello. He lives with two others who can leave but have no families to take them in. “It’s difficult, very sad, because if you entered 10 years ago, the world changed,” Eduardo said, and his commitment remains outside the walls. He said that the day before, he had gone to pick up a boy who had been released and took him to an acquaintance’s house to do a painting job.

Tehuelches has had more than 220 training sessions until today, and approximately 80 players have passed through the team. Some have stopped playing, and several have regained their freedom. The teachers are all volunteers, and their work does not give them credits for penalty reduction. But it gives them a sense of belonging and being with people who are like friends.

Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

The boy who organised the library could not play because of an injury, but he still came out and served as the waterboy. “Rugby led me to discover what I didn’t know about my physical and mental abilities, that it could make my sentence lighter, and to be able to smile, to clear my head,” he said. Until he joined Tehuelches, he did not know rugby and thought it very risky, especially in confinement. But later, he saw that it fosters respect among his teammates.

“I like playing; it gives you adrenaline. It motivates you and grounds you. There are activities, but none are outdoors, and everything inside is cement; you see the sky behind the bars. On the other hand, here on the land, with the grass, the mud, the cold – all that you haven’t had for years – if you come to rugby, you get it back for a while.”

In Neuquén, since 2019, the Spartanos initiative team has been called Tehuelches XV. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

Another boy arrived and sat down next to him. A bullet had injured his leg, and he couldn’t endure the whole training session. From that place, he said nobody visits him and that he will look for another life when he gets out. He also showed his admiration for the teachers.

“The attitude they put into it. The time they take to come on a Sunday morning. Not many do that these days; it’s remarkable. You can appreciate the effort they put in to make this happen; it’s something to be appreciated,” he said.

‘They don’t want to miss it’

“Opportunity, self-control, inspiration, reflection, humility, empathy, commitment, unity, integration, strength, resilience, and freedom.” The players chose the words painted on the wall, and according to Eduardo, each reflects a specific situation. They have many projects ahead, such as organising an outdoor match at Neuquén Rugby Club in October.

In Neuquén, since 2019, the Spartanos initiative team has been called Tehuelches XV. Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

Thiago also came over to chat. He is the son of one of the coaches, Carlos, “the grandfather”, at the University; he had been asked to participate in solidarity practices. “I’ve been coaching rugby for a long time, and my old man is involved. So, I joined the two parts. We linked with the Espartanos Foundation, and I started in March. It’s very good; it’s a reality shock,” he said.

At the end of the activity, everyone made a circle. Only the teachers and the players talked and listened. They all had mud stuck to their clothes, and while they were gathered, a flock of birds hovered over their heads. They hugged each other and shouted, “Tehuelches carajo”.

The famous third half was short, and they shared tangerines. The boys in the maximum security wards were put in handcuffs. “They managed to combine different wards, which is very rare. This is like a ground wire for us, like semi-freedom, let’s say,” said one of them and added that he never thought he would be in prison and even less that he would miss the soil, but he is hopeful.

“After the game and the famous third half, the players in the maximum security pavilions were handcuffed.” Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

“You can tell when you’re going off track and must try to be a little more aware. This is the bottom of the cliff, and I don’t recommend it to anyone. You are far away from your family; you miss many things here. You have to get back on track. Now you have to get out and get back on the right path again,” he said as he was told to stand up to get out, or rather to get in.

The teachers crossed the gate and, while they were given back their belongings, they explained that they were aware that the main victims of this were the victims of what the inmates did and their solidarity was with those people. But the inmates have already been judged for that and have a sentence to carry.

Credit: Matías Subat via The Human Journalism Network.

“One day, they will be released, so what do we want as a society? A worse person than the one who entered? We bet on a better one coming out. That is our work, what we can do. It is a huge task, but their behaviour is improving a lot. Most of them are studying, and there is respect. We achieved that,” concluded Eduardo.

This story was originally published in Río Negro (Argentina) and is republished within the Human Journalism Network programme, supported by the ICFJ, International Center for Journalists.