Imogen Walsh 

Boats Not Bars: An indoor rowing testimonial from prison

Boats not Bars is a prison indoor rowing program run by the charity Fulham Reach Boat Club.

It uses the intervention of an indoor rowing programme as a medium for learning the skills and behaviours that have been shown to reduce the chances of someone reoffending after release from prison. With prisons at capacity, and statistics showing us that nearly half of those behind bars will go on to reoffend, something needs to be done to make prison a one-off punishment, and not the start of an ongoing cycle of offending and imprisonment.

The Government’s own assessment of the prison system is that it “fails to rehabilitate or make sure criminals are prevented from offending again,” and yet it also recognises that “prison-based sport and physical activities have clear physical and psychological benefits and can be valuable in promoting desistance from crime.” With the estimated annual economic and social cost of reoffending at £18.1 billion per year, a simple program that helps to stop the revolving door of the criminal justice system is vital.

The following is written by a prisoner who has taken part in the Boats not Bars program. He is currently studying a law degree whilst behind bars. Since taking part in the indoor rowing course, he continues to row, and after passing his British Rowing indoor coaching certificate, is helping as Assistant Coach on current courses at the prison.

A quick story about my experience with indoor rowing:

At the age of 20, I made a mistake that has cost me my freedom. After a night out and bit to drink, I made the wrong choices and acted out of impulse. Things moved at 100mph; a fight had broken out and two people were left with life changing injuries that were caused by my lack of self-control and discipline. 

There has not been one day since that night that I haven’t reflected and regretted my actions. Looking back, my actions would have been way different. We can’t change the past but we can learn from those actions and change how we will react in the future.

Prison is a place that can have a major effect on your mental health and physical health. We are judged and put down for our crimes and not seen equal anymore. Spend five minutes having a conversation with me and you will change your mind and perspective.

Taking responsibility for what has happened and not looking for the easy way out or blaming others = step one in developing your character.

Life teaches us many things. It taught me that we can learn and it taught me that we can change. Change will only happen if you put time and effort to breaking the chain of bad habits.

Prison has changed me as I made sure I dedicated my time to progress and development. I’ve studied different courses, whilst reading and building on the knowledge and experience of life inside. Understanding who you are and being in the same room by yourself for 365 days can get boring and you run out of things to do.

I wanted to plan and set goals that would improve my skills and understanding of life. I was introduced to rowing by PE Hooper. After a gym session he handed me some books as he knew I like to read. After reading Redemption and seeing a high-risk prisoner change and become a role model to so many people I found myself more motivated.

We are born to achieve and make the best of any situation. When the Boats not Bars course was introduced in the establishment, this was my chance to take part in rowing. A sport that I never had any idea of. I was happy to try something new.

Imogen Walsh an amazing and well-spoken ex pro athlete of the sport. People will have their opinions and ideas about prisoners. She didn't, and that was reflected in the way she spoke and asked us questions to try to get to know us. Indoor rowing for me is a mirror image of life.

Set a distance and a goal and work to achieve it. Life is a race with ups and downs, and it depends how you want to have that race. We all start with a starting and finishing line. My first 30km was one of the hardest things that I have done in my life. That was extremely physically difficult and mentally hard to keep on the rowing machine. We all have limitations and a breaking point but we need to challenge ourselves and get over them. Find out what you stand for and what makes you feel good and like you have completed something. Life is not easy and fair but you have to give it your best shot.

After three and a half years behind the same door it has taught me something. How to be patient and appreciate the small things in life. All our actions will have a domino effect on the ones you love; don’t be selfish, make the best of today.

After completing 6 weeks of the indoor rowing course, it has helped me to make better decisions and understand things in a different way. We have taken part in a charity event, where a group of us have challenged ourselves to row as much as we can in a day. It has give us purpose and a feeling of giving back and being part of something.

I was lucky to be picked for the opportunity to go out on release on a temporary license to Fulham Reach Boat Club. It was a great experience being able to practice my new skills in a real rowing boat. The skills that I have learned from rowing I can transfer to treat life. Patience, persistence and determination, all skills that I will be able to take away and use in life and inside.

I am 100% sure that after this experience I can conduct myself better, as a law-abiding citizen and not repeat the same mistake.

Inside Indoor and Fulham Reach Boat Club would like to thank the author of this for his honesty and openness, and wish him every success for the future.

If you would like to make a donation to the program, and help not just the participant but the families and communities that surround that person, please click here.

To learn more about Fulham Reach Boat Club, click here.

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