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Prison Perspectives on Social Capital

by | Feb 5, 2021 | Communities, Skills and Capacity

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Ahead of joining Grow Social Capital during Social Capital Week 2021 (#SCW21) for a webinar discussing social capital, in a guest blog Jamie Grundy, author of 90 Minutes Of Football about Wales’s only prisoner football team, provides a flavour of the linking social capital he saw during the season he spent with Wales’s only prisoner football team.

In 2019 I published my first book 90 Minutes Of Freedom about the 2018-19 football season I spent with the only prisoner football team in Wales, Prescoed FC, who play in division 2 of the Gwent Central League.

The idea came about through working in prison education which inevitably brought me into contact with serving prisoners. One of the prisons with whom I worked is HMP Prescoed a category D prison, i.e., an ‘open’ prison or ‘D Cat’ prison, tucked away in rural Monmouthshire and is largely populated by men serving out the final months of longer sentences or men on short sentences.

My reasons for writing the book and how I gained the trust of the prisoners can be read about in more detail here or listen to my recent interview with Decentered Media or this podcast I recorded for the organisation Sporting Heritage CIC in which I was joined by the captain of Prescoed FC and one of the senior members of staff at HMP Prescoed.

The fourth voice on that Sporting Heritage podcast is Russell Todd who told me about him setting up Grow Social Capital as we drove one day to HMP Prescoed to watch the team play. Russ and I share a similar background in community development, and though we’ve seldom worked together directly in communities, our experiences have much in common and we share similar values about the power and importance of community. But since telling me about Grow Social Capital and what he, along with Andy, Sarah and Matt, was hoping it could achieve, I have found myself applying the concept of social capital to my experiences at the prison and in writing the book.

90 Minutes Of Freedom

The bulk of 90 Minutes Of Freedom is comprised of chapters dedicated to the team’s first XI written in a first person narrative based on interviews I conducted with them and several recurring themes crop up. This might be to be expected given there are a range of shared experiences, circumstances and perspectives among the men: they’re all interested in sport; they are all remote from their families; they all have their freedom and return to society imminently ahead of them; and so on.

90 Minutes of Freedom Book

When I hear Russell talking about social capital I often find myself returning to the time I spent with the team. Not just what they told me in the interviews for the book, or in the general chats I would have with them; nor when they told me to “get my f*****g boots on” because they were one short for a match one occasion. No, I also find myself recalling behaviours and non-verbal interactions that I would witness. 

Even though Prescoed FC is comprised entirely of serving prisoners it is for all intents and purposes like any football team: there’s banter, ribbing and mickey-taking; there’s moments of aggression and frustration; there’s unbridled joy at scoring and winning (Prescoed FC very rarely lose as it happens). The only difference is that the team is not allowed to play any away games!

I talk a lot in the book about the positive impact that sport, not just football, has on serving prisoners by, for instance, encouraging exercise and positive mental health, promoting teamwork and providing routine for men who in the case of many at Prescoed will soon be returning to a routine of family life, work and socialising.

But for me one of the most important things I saw in my season with Prescoed FC was what I’ve come to learn is the linking social capital. If you are aware of social capital chances are you are aware of the distinction between bonding capital – the relationships among people with shared characteristics, identity and networks – and bridging capital – the relationships and connections between groups of people who different to each other such as different levels of wealth, or different ethnicities, faiths and gender.

Linking capital

I see linking capital as sort of existing between the building and bridging forms. But looking back at my time visiting Prescoed I can now see that it was strong linking social capital that I could see in the bonds, relationships and interactions to which I was privy.

Linking capital refers to the forms of bridging capital that exist within strongly defined institutional or organisational arrangements. For instance, work colleagues in a company who work on different projects, at different pay-grades, and maybe working in different locations. The company’s mission, strategic business plan, workplace cultures and more all shape and mould the way in which its workforce interact and form relationships.

If you have ever worked for a large organisation just think how you have (tons of!) work meetings about specific service areas or projects, and in specific teams. You spend time with senior officers, directors or trustees. But you don’t just work with these people though since you let your collective hair down on the occasional lunch, social events, Christmas do, fundraisers, team away days or corporate volunteering days. Though shaped by work and the company culture they are not necessarily defined by them; the workers themselves might have a large degree of autonomy, influence and creative input to these experiences. But in the background is always the broader institutional setting

Social capital behind bars

Having worked for a local authority and a university this is all very familiar to me, and probably yourself. It is possible though that you have never set foot in a prison however. They are, of course, highly regulated environments with strict rules, protocols and processes. Combined with the hierarchies within the prison workforce and the strict divide between it and the prisoners, extremely strong institutional relationships and cultures form. Sprinkle into this arrangement those, like myself, with permission to come into the prison for work purposes (but very definitely not a prison guard); those prisoners with enhanced roles and privileges such as being a gym orderly; and the more informal cultural and social differences among the prison population (the English/Welsh rivalry at Prescoed; the differences between long-term prisoners and those on shorter sentences; the age differences among them, and so on) and it is clear to see that there is more diversity behind prison gates than is perhaps initially apparent.

Prescoed FC is mainly co-ordinated off-field by prison staff while the prisoners comprise the team; very rarely does a member of staff play. Within those ‘90 minutes of freedom’ – something that one of the prisoners referred to the match day experience being for him – the staff and prisoners come together to achieve a common cause – to win a game of football. The hierarchy and power differential between the two ‘cohorts’ remains firmly in place, but for a short period every Saturday afternoon, and for training during the week, the separation between them would temporarily converge. A player wanted to perform – for himself, the team and the staff on the touchline. But he would also disagree with being substituted or get frustrated at decisions that went against him. Playing for the team is a privilege and not a right for the prisoners at HMP Prescoed and it is a privilege that can be withdrawn at any time if his discipline slips.

The usual separation does not return immediately as the final whistle is blown; rather it is a more gradual restoration during the cooldown and post-match changing room banter. But it is always there.

Several of the players referred to prison staff in almost paternal terms. With several of them coming from homes where male father figures were often or permanently absent, the presence of an authoritative, senior, perhaps older man performed a valuable role for many. Some of the older prisoners performed similar roles for the younger men. But all within very disciplined and regulated environments, enforced either by rules (with recourse, I suppose, to force if necessary); or less tangible cultural norms.

Where bridging capital tends to be more horizontal within communities, I guess linking tends capital tends to ‘travel’ more vertically between hierarchies and where power is located unevenly. I have never worked in their environments but I can imagine the police and armed forces are also home to similar linking capital; within political environments too.

Off the back of my experience at HMP Prescoed I have set up Inside Out Support Wales to support ex-prisoners and those nearing release with self-employment, learning and training. We are looking forward to working with Grow Social Capital and applying some of the techniques and ideas they have for enhancing social capital within our networks and services.

Join me during Social Capital Week 2021 (#SCW21) on Wednesday 24 February at 6pm when I’ll be talking more about this and more via a webinar.

You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @JamieGrundyNet and his social enterprise Inside Out Support Wales at @Cefnogaeth. You can buy 90 Minutes Of Football through the website www.jamiegrundy.net/shop.

Written by Jamie Grundy

Jamie Grundy is an author, researcher and practitioner with an expertise and interest in the field of criminal justice. He has worked in all the prison in Wales and several in England too, supporting people with convictions into purposeful activities designed to help them stop re-offending, post-release. He wrote his first book, 90 Minutes of Freedom, when he realised his research project was getting out of hand!


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