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Batting for a better life – how sport can offer young offenders in Europe a brighter future

The Erasmus+ project at Heinsberg Prison shows how sport can give young offenders in Europe prospects.

Text: Julia Göhring | July 2021

The original article appeared on the website of the  National Agency “Education for Europe” at BIBB.


Once a month, trainers from the sports club BSV Wassenberg go to prison. They do softball and baseball training with young offenders in Heinsberg Prison. What does that have to do with educational opportunities? An awful lot! People who learn about their abilities, how to develop them and put them to use as part of a team, have a good grounding for integration in a positive social environment after regaining their freedom. An important Erasmus+ goal is helping people in precarious social situations to participate in society. The BSV Wassenberg has made use of the opportunities offered by Erasmus+ and linked up with European partners in the project STEPS.

Click. The door opens. Peter Dohmen, chairman of the BSV Wassenberg, trainer Alexandra Nowack-Dittmer and their team colleagues show their ID and enter. Click. The door closes behind them again and is locked. They are now within the walls of Heinsberg Prison. They have brought gloves, balls, and baseball bats. In a few moments, these objects will be in the hands of young offenders aged between 14 and 24 – not as weapons, but for softball and baseball training. Dohmen says that the idea of training with young prisoners arose by chance. They came into contact with Leif Herfs, a sports official at the prison, over “an after-work beer”. They soon agreed to work together. 

Improving concentration and learning about team work

“Initially, I was worried about the safety aspect,” says trainer Nowack-Dittmer. “I thought: I’m a mother, I have young children, at some point the prisoners will be released into society.” Sports official Herfs also states clearly: “Anyone imprisoned here has committed a serious offence.” For this reason, participants for training were selected from prisoners who had distinguished themselves through good behaviour. “They understand that the extra sports opportunities have to be earned,” and are very grateful, he adds. 

JVA Heinsberg Inklusionsprojekt Erasmus+ Erwachsenenbildung.

Sports official Leif Herfs (2nd from right) and chairman of the BSV Wassenberg, Peter Dohmen (right), tell project partners about the facilities at Heinsberg Prison. (© Alexandra Nowack-Dittmer)

Prisoners (in green) show what they have learned in competition. (© Alexandra Nowack-Dittmer)

 

“We had a twelve-metre long batting cage and a ball-pitching machine at the initial training session,” Dohmen recalls. “Batting, catching, pitching, running, sprinting – baseball is technically very demanding,” he explains. Nowack-Dittmer makes a similar point: “It requires tremendous concentration, awareness of others, teamwork, fitness, and clear thinking.”

Training with the sports club has a positive impact on several levels

Though it may initially sound surprising to outsiders, none of the club members have had negative experiences so far. “Our worries quickly disappeared,” Dohmen says. “The youths approached us with curiosity, but also with a questioning attitude, which is what we want from them.” 

Detention centres are usually an “enclosed cosmos”, he explains, with little contact to the outside world. It means something to the young offenders that “people from outside” want to work with them. There are projects for many other socially disadvantaged groups, but “hardly anyone focuses on young offenders”, even though sport can have a positive effect on subsequent re-socialisation if long-term interest arises and the individuals continue in a club after their release. Such clubs offer the young men a positive social environment in which to integrate. Dohmen explains that clubs are unfortunately affected by the current coronavirus training restrictions. Only when the pandemic subsides will work be able to resume. 

However, the benefits of sport can already be seen in an improved attitude to one’s own body. “It promotes a more healthy way of living and positive use of leisure time,” Herfs says. “And sport also helps with integration,” he says, “as numerous different cultures and languages meet in the prison.” The softball team, the “Lago Lions”, has already participated in two competitions which the BSV Wassenberg organised with external clubs.

JVA-Heinsberg Projekt Erwachsenenbildung Inklusion.

Project partners were themselves able to pick up a ball and gloves when visiting Heinsberg Prison. (© Alexandra Nowack-Dittmer)

During their visit, the project partners also saw the detention areas in Heinsberg Prison. (© Alexandra Nowack-Dittmer)

 

The aim of the Erasmus+ project STEPS was to transfer this positive approach to other European countries. Dohmen convinced his employer, the Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Weiterbildung im Handwerk (Association for Continuing Education in Skilled Trades), to take on the role of project coordinator. Representatives from Austria, Italy, Greece, and Turkey met from 2018 to 2020. The organisations were linked by their involvement in education for socially disadvantaged people. In this way, contact was also made with other prisons. During one project meeting, the partners visited a training session in Heinsberg Prison, and were enthusiastic about what they witnessed.

Successful concept throughout Europe

Dohmen quickly realised that, “There is a great need for such projects. Prisons in many countries do not even seem to offer organised sport.” Thomas Vondrak from the Austrian partner “Club Life Long Learning” puts it as follows: “In these institutions you can get everything – mobile phones, drugs, food – apart from the chance to do something that offers a worthwhile alternative to everyday prison life.” He points out that there is no lobby group for prisoners. At a project meeting in Innsbruck the project partners discovered that an official at Innsbruck Prison organised tours in the mountains for young offenders with used mountain bikes. “Take, say, a 15-year-old of Moroccan origin: he’s probably never been up in the mountains, that was never part of his everyday reality, and now suddenly he experiences fresh air, pleasant temperatures, the feeling of freedom. Who knows? Maybe he starts to think about becoming a mountain guide,” says Vondrak.

Herfs, who is familiar with the background of the young offenders in Heinsberg Prison, is also aware that many of them have lacked positive opportunities in their lives so far and believes that, “you and I would also probably have turned to crime if we had their history.” And so Dohmen, Nowack-Dittmer, and Herfs hope that the pandemic is soon sufficiently under control to allow them to resume their monthly training sessions.

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