The first thing you notice when you step into the bright, airy reception hall is the trophy cabinet. It is crammed with cups, plaques and medals, nearly all for sporting achievement. Inside there is a large modern gymnasium with all the latest training aids, including an ergometer. In the grounds there are a couple of rugby pitches, a separate football pitch and a BMX track.
An upmarket health club and leisure centre? No, a prison. Or, to be more precise, a young offenders' institution. Thorn Cross, outside Warrington, has the sort of facilities over which many underfunded sports clubs would drool. Warrington's rugby league team sometimes train there and the gym has hosted major weightlifting competitions.
I visited Thorn Cross with Geoff Thompson, the Manchester-based former world karate champion whose work with underprivileged youngsters as executive chairman of the Youth Charter for Sport has made him the most recognised, but still the most undervalued, of sport's "social workers". He believes sport is an intrinsic part of the rehabilitation process and research figures indicate that as far as Thorn Cross is concerned, it is working. Recidivism has been been significantly reduced since the intensive sports programme was introduced three years ago.
We drove to the institution, which houses 15 to 21-year-olds, mainly first offenders, through Moss Side, "the killing streets" as Thompson calls them. There had been three shootings that weekend. It was mid-morning and even the famous "Champs Camp", once a hive of boxing activity, was shuttered. "Many of the kids are unemployed and there is just nothing for them to do," said Thompson. "That's why so many turn to crime."
Since he started the work 10 years ago, Thompson has been involved in helping to set up sports programmes in 10 institutions, from top security prisons down to "model" youth offenders units, like the one at Thorn Cross. Next on his list is Strangeways. "I have met youths from Moss Side in every prison I have visited and the worry is that when they do get out they will get back into the cycle of crime within a few hours as a result of them not having the type of network and support that they get inside – three square meals a day and a strong, fit, healthy regime which includes sport.
"The sad thing is that most do not have the option to get involved further in the sort of sports programmes that inspired them while they were inside. But at least sport gives them a chance. If you use its unifying power in the widest social and cultural sense you start to find some of the answers.
"Once I started going into prisons I realised there were better facilities inside than you could get outside. It wouldn't surprise me if some knocked off a few cars just to get nicked and take up sport!" He jests, or course. Or does he?
Thompson reckons there are a lot of people in the prison service who genuinely care about rehabilitation through sport. Jim Bancroft, 62, the governor in charge of resettlement at Thorn Cross, where they also run courses from cookery to car mechanics, recently won a gold cup at Southport's Flower Show, and go canoeing in Snowdonia, clearly is one of them. "We are giving them what they should have had when they were in the community," he says.
He has worked at a number of prisons, including Strangeways and Leeds, says that Thorn Cross's sports facilities are the best he has experienced. There are currently 175 inmates with a capacity for almost double that, and a staff of over 70, nine of whom are involved in the sports programme, headed by 36-year-old ex-servicewoman Louise Atherton, a former women's rugby league international.
Unlike in schools, PE is compulsory, although they prefer not to use the word, simply saying it is part of the regular programme. But the young lags obviously reckon the push-ups philosophy is infinitely preferable to porridge.
Many sports are organised, from both rugby codes to table tennis, but contact sports such as boxing, judo and other martial arts are not permitted. "That sort of thing could get out of hand," admits Bancroft. "Mind you, we do have one or two fights on the football pitch."
According to Thompson there is an incredible amount of sporting talent "banged up" in Britain's prisons. Outside Thorn Cross's kitchens, pictures and newspaper cuttings about former Manchester United footballer Gary Twynham, alongside a letter from Sir Alex Ferguson commending the work of the institution, adorn the notice board. Twynham worked there while he was serving a four-month sentence for a drunken assault. After his release he played for a number of clubs in England and Scotland, and has obtained his FA coaching badge.
Matt Norford, 20, formerly a top-flight basketball player with the Manchester Giants and an England trialist as a back guard, has been at Thorn Cross for the last year of a two-year sentence for pushing drugs. Now he is the lynchpin of Thorn Cross's small basketball squad.
"I never really finished my schooling, so being sent here in some ways was a blessing," he says. "I now have some GCSEs and the sports programme has helped me to see that there is more to life than being a bad lad. It was easier to get help in here than it was on the outside. If you are good at sport and you let them know you are interested, they will help you. They let me train every night, I am fitter now than I've ever been."
He is up for parole, and wants to move away from Moss Side, which is why Thompson is trying to get him a deal with the Birmingham Bullets. He has told Norford: "This is your last opportunity, three strikes and you're out."
As a schoolboy Norford had hopes of a basketball scholarship in the United States. "The trouble was everyone at school was selling drugs and I fell into that culture, I also got my girlfriend pregnant and needed quick money. It was all too easy, but now I've been two years away from my son, some of which was in a closed prison, I've begun to feel differently. Being inside makes you step back and think. Most of my mates from Moss Side are either in jail or dead, and the way I was heading, I was going to end up the same way. Fortunately I've now got another chance and I mean to take it.
"In a couple of years I have seen people shot, stabbed, so many lives lost, and I have made up my mind that I am not going to go back out to that and come back banged up with a life sentence. I have always loved basketball but I have never had much help and now somebody has given me a chance, I want to put something back in. I don't want the stigma of being a jailbird for the rest of my life."
It may look as if they have it easy but, claims Thompson, they don't because they have to earn what they get. "While they are inside they are learning new skills whether it is sport or something else, and by and large they don't come back."
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