Sunday, November 6, 2005

Football Behind Bars

Football Therapy in a Belarus Prison

Joel Rookwood in Belarus

Belarus Prison Ground
For around 80% of all the inmates we worked with, the least serious offence that had been committed was rape. These therefore are basically houses for murderers. As well as help lead the coaching in each detention centre, I also had the incredible opportunity of interviewing some of the convicts for the charity's magazine.

The guards normally select the inmates to be interviewed, often choosing some of the more colourful characters, probably to teach me a lesson. So armed only with a notepad, I would find myself locked in a room with a dainty female translator and the most scary man in a rough Belarusian prison full of murderers. Needless to say I didn't offer up my contact details as the interviews reached their conclusion.

Now I soon learned that many of the people locked away in these institutions are sick and twisted individuals, of that there's no question. You only have to be locked in an interview room with one, and look in his eyes, hear his story and watch him proudly show off the swastika tattoo that dominates his chest to realise that.

Prison Inmates, Belarus
Yet there are many who instead are trapped by circumstance and even injustice, and are just desperate to get out, desperate for a new beginning. I guess you could say that with most prisons, but if you saw the determination some of them have to turn their life around, and the horrific conditions these people have to live in …it makes Walton nick look like the Ritz.

Football coaching sessions and matches in the prisons are always times when you have to be on your toes. Barbed wire fences, armed guards and scores of riot shields hanging around the place as you enter don't fill you with much confidence. As a result you're always conscious of the possibility of seeing a bad tackle cause the place to erupt. I guess that's the risk you take.

1992 Tattoo
Now in the boy's prison, some of the older lads like to improve their fighting capability by injecting Vaseline into their hands. The (apparently desired) affect of this irreversible process is that the hand swells to double its natural size, leaving a hand that is virtually its own boxing glove, with the metacarpals no longer visible. At the younger range of the age scale, I coached a lad with the numbers 1,9,9,2 tattooed across four of his knuckles. Intrigued, I inquired in my best Russian as to how old he was. “Twelve” was his reply. I'd say that was unbelievable, if I thought it was.

So baring in mind the type of inmates you come across in these male prisons, as with much of the work we do, it's not about quality coaching sessions, or improving skill levels. It's usually a case of giving the inmates a break from the norm, a bit of fun in a harsh life of limited excitement.

Samaritan's Purse

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