From Convict to Checkmate: Chess Brightens Life Inside | Prisons and probation

Inmates at two of Britain’s most prominent prisons are learning chess in a new pilot program designed to combat boredom and channel aggression.

The program began earlier this month inside HMP Wandsworth, one of the country’s most heavily populated prisons, and HMP Isis, for young offenders. But the aim is to roll out the program across Britain, with 50 prisons actively teaching chess by 2020.

As well as relieving the inevitable isolation and boredom that comes with pressures from staff and prisoners locked up for long periods of time, Malcolm Pein, the chief executive of the charity that runs the program, says chess offers detained essential skills for life on the outside.

“It’s a game that trains you to think before you act, and that’s a really useful skill for a lot of offenders,” says Pein, a former chess professional.

His charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, set his sights on the prison service after witnessing the game’s transformative impact in some of Britain’s most deprived schools. “The benefits of teaching children chess – in developing skills, resilience and self-esteem – are directly transferable to a prison environment,” he says.

A chess program of this scale has never been tried in British prisons before, and the charity spent six months negotiating with governors and experts. The ultimate goal is to persuade the government to take over long-term funding, assuming the pilot projects are successful.

It was a promising start, says Pein. The first session at HMP Isis last week was oversubscribed as dozens of prisoners who missed watched from the library window. “Prison staff were amazed at how inmates were so completely focused for three hours without a break. Nobody wanted us to leave,” he said.

Carl Portman knows only too well the benefits of chess for prisoners. For four years, he voluntarily visited 25 prisons across the country to teach inmates what he calls the joys and redeeming qualities of chess. “You can’t take a pool table to your cell, but take a set of chess and you have a friend for life. It’s magic,” he says. Learning to channel aggression and lose gracefully are the main benefits of the game, says Portman, whose book, Chess behind barsrecounts his experience.

“Often inmates are used to doing what they want, so they complain or blame someone else if they don’t. But you can’t do that in chess. It’s your game, you make the moves, you make the decisions. You take the pat on the back or the kick on the back. “I’ve seen gangs that hate each other get together over a game of chess and get along,” Portman says. “If someone is playing, their buddies will sort it out.”

But Portman’s efforts are small-scale. Due to financial restrictions, it can only manage seven training sessions per year. The charity’s program aims to make chess lessons an integral part of prison policy – with weekly lessons being held.

The goal is to have some of the most gifted prisoners take over teaching, as they would be the best role models, Pein says. Teaching the children of inmates is also part of the plan to help families bond during visiting hours and hopefully after inmates are released.

Inter-prisoner tournaments and chess leagues involving prisoners and the local community could follow, Pein says.

After just a few sessions, Peter Sullivan, one of the charity’s tutors, says he’s already detected how inmates view chess as an “unconventional form of escapism”.

“While they’re thinking, ‘Should I take the knight or the bishop?’ they don’t think about the situation they’re in,” he says. “They don’t think about the bars on the windows and all the rules of prison life.”

There’s a reason, Portman says, why chess has been called the gymnasium of the mind. “A lot of inmates like to go to the gym and work out, but you have to have a fit mind as well as a fit body.”

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