Two weeks ago, the pilot project hosted its first event, an indoor rowing race at the Feltham Prison. There were five participants and a small squad of spectators.

“The event was a real achievement and celebration for all the staff, young men and rowing family involved,” says acting head of PE at Feltham Prison, Wendy Limb.  “We had Olympic rowers in, as well as team members from the Oxford and Cambridge rowing teams. One of the rowers brought in their Olympic medals and Olympic torch. Family members also came to support the regatta.”  

The event was the culmination of a ten-week course in which the participants learned to row on the indoor rowing machine. After successfully completing the course and the competition, these young aspiring athletes will be able to continue rowing after their release from the prison.

Indoor rowing has been offered as physical activity at Feltham Prison for several years on a voluntary basis. Olympian Imogen Walsh, under the supervision of the prison staff, has been providing lessons on proper rowing technique. But the push for a more extensive programme was partially inspired by the success of former prisoner John McAvoy.

During his time in prison, McAvoy broke the indoor rowing British record. He has spoken out about how channeling his energy through sport helped him to change. Upon his release, McAvoy joined the Fulham Reach Boat Club (FRBC) and has continued his athletic endeavours. He is now a Nike sponsored triathlete and made his Ironman debut in 2013.

The Boats not Bars project believes that McAvoy’s story shows the power of sport in rehabilitation.

One of the participants (that cannot be named) said: “Having read John McAvoys story it was amazing to see his film and to then meet him. He is an inspiration and has shown us what really can be achieved if you want it bad enough. I’m really grateful of the opportunity to try rowing and then have my family come in and see what I had accomplished in the ten weeks."

“It was amazing to meet, row and race alongside Olympic Rowers and show off our learnt skills. Their achievements show us what is possible with hard work and it’s really motivated me to do my best," said another participant. 

Feltham Prison caters to young offenders, between the ages of 15 and 21. “The joint partnership between FRBC and HMYOI Feltham (prison) will use indoor rowing, outdoor rowing, pathways into participation and employment in rowing to refocus the mind set of participants and give them the chance to change their environment upon release which, it is hoped, will give them the best chance of not re-offending,” says Limb.

The goal is to reduce the reoffending rate to zero. Limb says the success of the pilot project will be reviewed and that several other prisons have been identified for possible rollout of the project.

For more information, see the website (currently under development): http://www.boatsnotbars.org/