Prison Ping: Coaching to a Captive Audience

Got an invitation recently to help out with a table tennis coaching session at one of Her Majesty’s maximum-security prisons. I duly accepted the invitation, grabbed my bat and ball and set off down the road. This was to be part of an ongoing project to get the best ping players in the prison up to scratch and ready to take their official Level 1 coaching badge. From there, they would fan out across the prison wings, passing on their newly acquired skills to anyone and everyone that cared to learn. And, as an added bonus, when they had done their time, they would leave prison with a marketable skill which just may help with their reintegration into the outside asylum. I was arriving about mid-way through the project so I would get a fairly good idea of how it was all going.

After getting through the many layers of security, I found myself in the main sports hall where about a dozen or so inmates were warming up on the tables. And here’s the funny thing. Within less than five minutes I felt in nearly every respect that I was in your average adult table tennis club. The prison warders soon merged into the background, some joining in on the tables while others looked on unobtrusively. As for the inmates; they simply got about their business as any serious table tennis player would. They all came across as polite, respectful, good humoured and generally up for a good session. Some were lifers, others were in for rather minor misdemeanours, but to us coaches their background story was completely irrelevant. We were there to coach, they were there to improve. And I have to say, it was a damn good three-hour training session in every respect.

Will the project succeed? From what I saw, all of those present at that session could easily reach the required standard to gain their Level 1 qualification. In fact, one of the youngsters already had his Level 1. Secondly, I could see no reason why they could not successfully pass on their skills to the general prison population. Each wing I was told, already had a table tennis table, and with boredom being a big issue in prisons, it seemed a natural fit. But the third part of the project, that of using those skills on the outside world would surely be a little more problematic. It is a well-established fact that prospective employers are very wary of employing anyone who has a record. Getting a clean DBS would be impossible for any serious offender. Much of the world of paid table tennis coaching is done in schools and youth clubs where a clean criminal record is essential. So, unless the government, via its various agencies including Sport England, are going to get fully behind this project, it is unlikely the third part will ever materialise.

On the way home I realised this prison project raised larger philosophical questions; most critically, what was the real purpose of prisons anyway? Was it for rehabilitation or was it for out and out punishment. I suspect people have been asking these questions for decades if not centuries, but certainly in Britain, we seem no nearer to finding any workable answers. I for one, find the idea of incarcerating another human being in a cage a rather barbaric practise, but I also recognise that if you are the victim of a particularly violent crime, then its vengeance and justice that you are after. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I can imagine many victims of crime reading this blog and wondering what the hell are we doing playing ping pong with hardened criminals. It’s not meant to be a Butlins Holiday Camp, I can hear them say. And I get where they’re coming from. But I am equally aware that most criminals got to where they are through a complex combination of socio-economic deprivation, a dysfunctional and brutalising home-life, general alienation from mainstream society and some poor individual decisions. And if there is not some coordinated programme of rehabilitation, then the chances of re-offending are sky-high.

On balance, I think I subscribe to the notion that once you have done your ‘time’ you should be treated as any other citizen. The slate should be wiped clean. But does that work when the crime was particularly brutal or directed at children for example? Well yes if the ex-prisoner has been fully rehabilitated and is then supervised during a parole period. I for one would welcome working with ex-prisoners in a coaching programme in the community under those circumstances. The crime has been done, the price has been paid and it is now surely time to move on. Of course, there might be some prisoners that you simply would not put in a position of trust with youngsters but I suspect these would be a tiny minority of the prison population. The vast majority are, to put the matter bluntly, prisoners of class. Young working-class men, far too many of whom are young Black men, who have been both marginalised and brutalised by an uncaring corporate world. Yes, they may have made some bad decisions but that does not, in my book, mean they should be written off. Quite the opposite. More time, more resources, more TLC should be administered rather than a lifetime of condemnation. Former Prime Minister, John Major once famously said; we should condemn more and understand less. My gut instinct tells me that, in the vast majority of cases, it should be the other way around.

I also got to thinking about how few wealthy people you see inside our prison system. The rich seem to get away with murder, literally in many cases. Take for example the 1% who squirrel away their ill-gotten gains in Britain’s many off-shore tax havens. Collectively we are talking of trillions of pounds which in a just society would be used to develop our crumbling infrastructure. Look at our nation’s many decrepit housing estates and it is little wonder that huge swathes of our youth end up in the criminal justice system. And until we, as a society, start investing in our youth, we can expect that trend to intensify. The solution is glaringly simple; close the tax havens, jail the corporate tax evaders and their accountants and lawyers, and rigorously tax the corporate profits for the benefit of all.

Of course, there is another tier of criminals that continually avoid any consequences for their crimes. I’m talking about the military-industrial complex which is only too ready to sell weapons to both sides of any foreign conflict and reap the profits when hostilities break out. Britain’s arms manufacturers have been playing this dirty game for centuries and they get away with it with total impunity. In fact, the top boys usually end up with a knighthood or some such similar imperial honour. These guys are crooks, plain and simple but they will never see the inside of a prison cell. Remember a certain Prime Minister’s son who was up to his neck in fermenting civil wars in Africa and selling arms to all and sundry. His little scams came to light but surprise, surprise; he is still walking around free as a bird.

And then there are the big-league war criminals; Presidents, Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries. In cahoots with the arms manufacturers, they can’t wait to get their names in the history books by starting a little war in some far-off foreign land. A few million die, but this is written off as collateral damage. Since the end of World War Two the numbers killed by western governments and their vicious colonial wars far exceeds the ten million mark: Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia- the list is endless and still this neo-colonial state sanctioned killing goes on. But these war criminals are likely never to be held accountable for their actions let alone see the inside of a prison cell.

Once you get your mind thinking clearly about these things you quickly realise what an unjust and hypocritical world we live in. The corporate criminal and their political mates walk free while the working class are incarcerated in ever increasing numbers. And if you’re a young Black man or a person of colour, expect to feel a disproportionate weight of injustice.

When I got home I was still thinking of the day’s activities. I was thinking about the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’. I was thinking of the American film, ‘Blue Collar’. I was thinking about David Lammy’s investigation into disproportionally high numbers of Black men in prison. But most of all, I was thinking about our shared humanity and how rehabilitation should always take precedence over punishment.

I’ll monitor this Prison Ping project with great interest and will resume this blog as and when the project reaches some point of maturity. Call me a bleeding-heart liberal, but I have much hope that this is a constructive way forward which, despite the endless budget cuts and staff shortages, has the potential to yield great results within and outside the prison system.

PS Thanks fellas for a great morning of ping.

End JPK Copyright 17/09/17

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