David Dein visited HMP Holme House in Stockton-on-Tees last month. It was a significant landmark for Dein, the former vice-chairman of Arsenal and the FA, and one of the people responsible for the creation of the richest league in world football. In the last six years he has visited all 118 prisons in England and Wales. If there was a groundhopper badge for prisons, Dein would be a fully paid-up member of the 118 club.
Dein has been interested in the role football can play in prisoners’ rehabilitation for some time and now he is heading up a project that aims to reduce the chances of prisoners re-offending after their release. The rate of recidivism in the UK is alarmingly high, with 64% of prisoners re-offending within a year of being released. Allied to this, England and Wales have the highest incarceration rates in western Europe, with a total prison population of more than 85,000. That cycle of re-offending costs the country £15bn a year – more than £35,000 per prisoner.
When launching the Twinning Project, Dein said: “Football can be a powerful force for good and the Twinning Project will use this to help people change their lives when they are released from prison.” One of Dein’s former players at Arsenal, Ian Wright, was the master of ceremonies at the launch. When he was 19 and had not yet signed his first professional contract at Crystal Palace, Wright was sent to Chelmsford Prison for two weeks after he failed to pay driving offences, an experience he calls his own “wake-up call”.
The Twinning Project link prisons with their local football clubs, who provide regular sessions, leadership courses and basic refereeing courses for inmates. The main objective is to improve the self-esteem of prisoners and help them gain employment, as only 17% enter the workplace upon their release. Some clubs have also committed to offering prisoners job opportunities, in catering or stewarding, for example.
The project is building on work a few clubs have been doing for some time. “A handful of clubs were engaging with prisons independently without any coordination with each other,” says Dein. “Also, for the six clubs that were delivering some form of programme, there are another 86 who are not doing any. So I felt that the consistent, replicable and sustainable delivery of meaningful programmes was what was sorely needed.”
Thirty-six clubs have signed up so far. They range from the mightiest – such as European champions Liverpool, league champions Manchester City and Europa League champions Chelsea – to some of the more modest, with Bury the latest to start a coaching programme at HMP Forrest Banks and Notts County coming on board despite their relegation from League Two to the National League. The funding for the programme comes almost exclusively from the clubs’ community foundations. With the endorsement of all the country’s leading football authorities – the Premier League, the EFL, the FA, PFA, LMA and PGMOL – the project has considerable heft.