Earlier this year, Imperial’s Peter Hardcastle led an initiative to engage inmates at Wandsworth Prison with rowing and physical wellbeing.
Peter, the College’s Head of Rowing and former Olympic rower for Australia, developed the three-month programme as a way to introduce inmates at the West London prison to rowing, culminating in a competition between prisoners and students from the College’s Boat Club.
Every fortnight, Peter would visit the West London prison and host sessions with a rotating group of 12 prisoners, including lessons on rowing technique, cardiovascular workouts and then social rowing relays in the prison’s gym. Although inmates are provided with gym facilities, access to guided tutorials and training in specific sports is something that is otherwise unavailable.
I'm a big believer in the power of sport...and the potential of an alternative path Peter Hardcastle Head of Rowing
The programme began following a chance meeting between Peter and a member of staff at the prison.
“I was chatting with a supporter attending a head race at the Boathouse, and they mentioned they worked at Wandsworth Prison; I was interested in finding ways to help, and she recommended I reach out to the wardens.”
After a successful launch and positive feedback from participants, the programme expanded in frequency and size. Eventually, sessions were offered to prisoners across all of Wandsworth’s five wings.
“It sounds strange to say, but it was a nice environment. Everyone who participated in the programme was appreciative and positive about our being there.”
A route to rehabilitation
As well providing an outlet to improve their physical wellbeing, Peter’s hope is that the programme can serve to as a route to rehabilitation.
“I’m a big believer in the power of sport” says Peter “Not just in the health benefits it provides, but also the opportunities it offers and the paths it opens in life. From what I could see, the programme gave these guys a focus and the potential for an alternative path.”
“It’s the same ethos I have with our athletes: it doesn’t matter where you’ve started from or where you’ve come from in life, it just matters where you’re going and how we can help you get there.”
The programme culminated in a team of inmates competing against Imperial students from the Boat Club (as well as two additional teams from external sponsors) in a rowing machine relay race.
“The atmosphere was amazing. In the end, the inmates beat our rowers by 0.4 seconds!”
The opportunity to experience the realities of life inside a prison was positively received by students.
“It was illuminating for our students to see, in their words, that these prisoners ‘were just normal people’, many of whom had simply taken a wrong path in life. It opened their eyes.” Peter reflected “Even as we entered the grounds and turned in our things – phones are strictly forbidden - there was no apprehension from the students.”
Given the enthusiasm with which it was received, and the interest from more students in supporting it, Peter’s ambition now is to make the programme a recurring one. The prison also has subsequently maintained the relay competition, hosting inter-wing events between inmates.
“I’m really glad I did it. And I’m proud of the fact that an institution like Imperial is able to go out into the community and be involved with something that is focussed on trying to rehabilitate people.”
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