Boats Not Bars

The Government’s own assessment of the prison system is that it “fails to rehabilitate or make sure criminals are prevented from offending again”.

The economic cost to society is an estimated £18.1bn per year, and a priceless cost in wasted human potential. Put simply, the aim of the Boats not Bars program is to reduce reoffending.

  • The cost per prison place, per year, is £48,774, rising to over £70k for 15- 17-year-olds.
  • A staggering 48% of prison leavers re-offend within 1 year of release.

And yet, there is a simple method to tackle this problem: research commissioned by the Ministry of Justice states that “participation [in sport] can not only improve health and behaviour but can directly contribute to efforts to reduce reoffending”, and that “physical and mental health needs are recognised as key areas to be addressed in attempts to reduce reoffending”.

Boats Not Bars helps make prison a one-off punishment for a crime, and not the start of a continuous cycle of crime and punishment.

In 2023 Boats Not Bars won the Sports Innovation Award from the Sports Business Awards.

The How: How Boats Not Bars Works

The Boats not Bars program is a 6-8 week rowing course delivered in prison. It creates change by:

Changing self-identity and building confidence

Participation in a structured course enables participants to see progress and reward through their hard work. Doing so through the medium of a sport that is often seen as off-limits, challenges the participants sense of what is accessible to them.

Soft skills

Through sport we learn the skills needed to thrive not just in employment, but also in our lives within society – communication, discipline, goal setting, time management, teamwork.

 “Engaging in structured programmes can help to teach offenders self-discipline, teamwork and leadership - crucial skills for a successful and crime-free life in the community” (former Justice Minister, Edward Agar)

Prison-specific benefits: either qualification or mental health support: depending on the needs of the specific prison, participants either have access to support from the Psychology Team, or to a British Rowing Indoor Coaching certificate. The certificate can often be the first positive experience of education that participants have had, and is a stepping stone to other qualifications.

Through the gate support

But what is vital to the program, is support when someone leaves prison. At FRBC we provide (alongside free membership) a supportive community who want the individual to thrive, links to jobs and other networks, and are in the process of setting up work placements.

 “Prison-based sport and physical activities have clear physical and psychological benefits and can be valuable in promoting desistance from crime” Meek & Lewis 2014

 Focus on Feltham YOI: Mental Health and Sport

The partnership working with the NHS psychology team at Feltham, takes our holistic approach to another level. Here, sessions are accompanied by psychologist led workshops, tackling the trauma that many participants have faced, building the relationship between the psychology team and the young adults, providing an opportunity to understand the links between physical and mental health, develop strategies to manage stress, set goals, communicate and work as a team, and understand what skills can be utilised by young adults in the future.

Feltham Gym Custodial Manager: “I think it is very good intervention and the link with wellbeing has taken it from a gym course to an intervention which not only supports physical wellbeing but has now improved the mental wellbeing and has shown those who do not normally engage with the regime and even their own recreational PE sessions.”

Dr Natalie Seymour: Young adults felt more able to engage with the wellbeing team after the course. One young adult asked for support, having previously not wanted support and another young adult made connections to the 1:1 sessions they were engaging in. Young adults shared that when they engaged in group discussions with peers they spoke about more personal and ‘deep’ things than they would normally do.

Participant feedback:

“This has been the best experience I have had in terms of education. I have learnt a lot and learned new skills”

 “It also helped me everyday in prison cause I had something look forward to. It also showed me that there are people out there who want the best for us.”

 “It was a great experience to be a part of because it has given me understanding of controlling emotions and not to overthink things. I’m thankful that I was able to take part in this.”

 “I have loved it. It has opened my eyes on what I can achieve.”

 “It also felt good that we competed in something outside of prison with normal people”.

To find out more about Boats Not Bars, please email [email protected]


Donations welcome

As a registered charity we welcome donations from individuals and businesses alike. Please visit our donations page to find out more.

Great memberships

Members are provided with access to the finest boats, rowing machines and club room as well as all club social events.

©2024  All rights reserved.     Company Number: 8900584     Registered Charity Number: 1161813
Sign up to newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest FRBC news, events and promotions