Former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein has unveiled an ambitious plan to use the power of football in prison to tackle the major problem of re-offending, convinced the sport can have a positive impact.
The 75-year-old Englishman – responsible for bringing the then little-known Arsene Wenger to the Premier League – said he had “played a whole pack of aces” to bring the Twinning Project to fruition.
Dein has brought together the UK government, the prison and probation services as well as the Premier League and the Football Association for the programme, which will deliver coaching and other qualifications aimed at boosting employment chances.
Professional clubs would provide two coaches, or other club staff, twice a week, with 16 offenders taking part in 12-week courses. Four courses would be run annually.
Dein – who hopes clubs all over the country will twin with their local prisons – and Jason Swettenham of the prison service, have 20 prisons signed up for a December launch.
Dein said he knew something had to be done to alleviate prisoners’ boredom, with the ultimate aim of reducing the rate of re-offending. Nearly 64% of adult prisoners in the UK commit another crime within 12 months of their release.
England and Wales had a prison population of more than 83,000 at the end of May 2018, with soaring rates of self-harm and dozens of suicides.
“I think really the penny dropped when I went into the prisons and I really saw what was going on there,” Dein said at the launch at Wembley on Wednesday, attended by about 400 people including the Minister for Prisons Rory Stewart, Wenger, other football luminaries and several prison governors.
“The prisoners have a very low level of self-esteem. Going inside a prison is an enlightening experience, they are not pleasant places.”
‘Crying almost every night’
Dein, who has visited and given talks in 106 prisons, decided he should take the bull by the horns.
“If we aren’t going to do it, who is going to do it?” he asked.
“I remember with the drive to get the EPL (English Premier League) going, as football was going down the drain in the 1980s, it was the same feeling of who is going to do it.
“It takes somebody to really grasp it to change society, to stop these guys re-offending and sport can do that.”
Swettenham – who began his career as a prison officer – said the programme will also have a positive impact on daily life behind bars.
“It reduces violence in prisons,” he added. “If you use football then it makes them healthier and positive endorphins reduce the level of aggression.”
Dein says the programme – which will also operate in women’s prisons – should be given at least two years as it will only be possible to assess the level of re-offending after a year.
“While there is breath in my body I will see it through,” he said. “There have been one-off projects before but this is the first time it has been joined-up writing as in a national campaign.”
Former Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who is now a BBC pundit, provides a perfect first-hand example of the trauma of being a prison inmate, having been sent to prison aged 19 for failing to pay a fine.
“It was petrifying to be in there,” he said. “I was crying almost every night as I had lost total control over my liberty, basic things like turning off the light.
“I discovered claustrophobic feelings I never thought I had.”
One of Wright’s former clubs West Ham, are fully behind the project, with their vice-chairman Karren Brady citing her grandmother’s motto as inspiration.
“Never look down on people unless you are helping them up,” she said. “And I believe this project really goes to the heart of that sentiment.”