I had the pleasure of visiting the Hope Academy, a part of the Ambassadors in Sport program, in South Africa. The program was started in 2008 by Mark Slessenger based on three principles: Football, Faith, and Future. The goal is to use Football (the US equivalent of soccer) to inspire inmates serving up to 10 years in prison to choose constructive paths for themselves while serving time and after they are released. The impact this program has had on its participants is palpable.
Thulani, a second-year soccer player, gave me a tour of the Academy. Beds are made every morning, school is attended every day, and football practice is taken seriously. Thulani and his comrades seek education, hold upstanding jobs and roles in the prison, including running the library, and sing songs of motivation in perfect harmony before play. They have won all but two games in 2010, which is an impressive record for any team and amazing considering their competitors are professional South African leagues that play for a living.
The structure of the game is applied to daily life. Men receive a green card as a first warning when a rule is violated. Rules include things like “No bad attitudes”, “Must Participate in School”, and “No Fighting”. After three cards, a person is expelled from the program and placed back into the general prison population. Moreover, there are trials every year to invite new people to the Hope Academy and also ensure current participants stay on top of their game. These rules serve as real incentives to manage behavior in a productive way and to keep people focused on achieving in the program.
In a prison that has nearly 100% participation in gangs (identified by numbers that distinguish each group’s notoriety--26 (thievery), 27 (blood), or 28 (rape)--and 85% of people return to prison for new crimes after being released, the Hope Academy has 0% gang activity and only 10% recidivism. What’s more is there has been just one verbal disagreement between two people in the Hope Academy since it started, compared to nightly assaults occurring in the general prison population. The success of the Academy is awe-inspiring and its only limitation is being able to accept more people into the program. The football program has been so successful that the prison added three new sports programs - completely supported by the government - within the prison for Rugby, Cricket, and Basketball.