CSC's Prisons Coordinator - Peter Sullivan tells all

Peter has been an enthusiastic chess player for as long as he can remember.  He has represented Mushrooms Chess Club in the London League for over 40 years and now, having taken early retirement, finds that Chess in Schools and Communities provides a perfect way for him to have fun and give something back to the game.

But why chess in prisons? Peter himself takes up the story. I was inspired to explore chess in prisons by articles about successful experiences in other countries. In particular I remember reading about an internet match between prisons in the US and Russia. A comment from a prisoner in a maximum security prison in Italy stayed with me. He said that before the chess course his problem was too much time – after it his problem was not enough time.

When I had time to pursue my idea, I immediately thought of Chess in Schools and Communities. They have the track record and experience of delivering chess in schools and I used to play against Malcolm as a teenager. I love the chaos and joy of a CSC chess class in a school, but I was drawn to the different challenge of bringing chess to adults in prisons. I have learned a huge amount about teaching, about prisons and about myself, and I can honestly say that it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

Photo: Inmates playing chess from their prison cells at Attica Correctional Facility, NY, 1972 | Cornell Capa

One of the first challenges is getting used to prison conditions: banging doors, clanking keys, the smells, the wait to get in and out, the rules, the feeling of being an outsider who is so obviously out of their depth. Everything takes an age, resources are scarce and I seem to learn the rules only by breaking them. Prison life is somewhere between Kafka and Alice in Wonderland. I doubt anyone ever gets entirely used to it, but I remind myself that I only experience it for a couple of hours; not for weeks, months and years on end. One of the first things I realised is that chess is an excellent game to introduce in prison. It seduces people to concentrate without them realising it. While people are thinking about whether to take with the knight or the bishop, they are not thinking about the bars on the windows. One of our first sessions lasted for three hours and the prisoners did not want it to end.

It soon became obvious that teaching chess was going to be a real challenge, because of the wide range of chess strength and experience amongst the prisoners. However, I was delighted to find that they were ready and willing to teach
each other. I have seen real improvements in playing strength and can take almost no credit for it. Chess is a wonderful game for encouraging a quiet, thoughtful, respectful atmosphere which is quite uncommon in prison. I try very hard to make sure that nobody is put on the spot or made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate, and I think the prisoners appreciate this. The atmosphere i peaceful. There is enough aggression and violence on the board – it does not need to spread to the room. I sense that people from the outside world treating prisoners with friendship and respect can also have positive impacts. A small amount of praise goes a long way. I remember taking one prisoner through the first five lessons in the CSC curriculum in one session and mentioning that he was a quick learner. He visibly grew in front of me. I suspect he had not received any praise in years.

If there is one experience that sticks in my mind, it is a conversation with a bull of a man with a shaven head, no neck, tattoos and huge muscles. After a few weeks he told me that he has spoken to his dad. He said he had not talked to him in ages, but he wanted to tell him he was playing chess. Wonderfully, his dad responded by sending him in a chess book. I strongly suspect the man cannot fully read, but he can follow the notation. If that man reestablishes contact with his father and can go home when he is released, he may not reoffend. You never know, they may even play chess together. I hope the father is getting some practice in for his son is a tenacious player. For me, this alone makes CSC’s prison initiative worth it.

CSC Prisons

Chess in Schools and Communities now provides chess lessons in 6 prisons. We are aiming to expand our presence further.

HMP Wandsworth

HMP Belmarsh ISIS

HMP Wormwood Scrubs

HMP Erlestoke- generously supported by The Walter Guinness Charitable Trust 

HMP Leeds 

HMP Liverpool

CSC Goes to Prison

Kajetan Wandowicz

I was somewhat surprised one Saturday to receive apologies for the absence of one of the regulars when I arrived for my weekly chess club at HMP Bristol.

“He says he’s very sorry he can’t make it today,” said the guard, “but his sister is visiting.”

Don’t get me wrong: it is of course good manners to excuse non-attendance but, after all, it was only a leisurely, drop-in, voluntary chess club session.

I never even made any assumptions who would be there and who wouldn’t, much less expected regular participation.

This must have shown in my face as Chris looked at me and said, “You know, it’s a big deal for them. Most men have told their families not to visit on Saturdays because they’ve got chess. He’d never miss it if his sister wasn’t flying back home to the States tomorrow.”

I’m sure you can imagine how much of a testament to our little chess club that was. Weekends are naturally more convenient for families to schedule visits, with no work or school to arrange around. Weekday visits are not only trickier to schedule, but they also carry higher cancellation risk. But Saturday is chess day.

I started thinking about prison chess a couple of years ago. Sometime around November 2013 thinking turned to planning, planning turned to excessive e-mailing, lobbying, shameless gate-crashing and all other sorts of prodding which the prison decision-makers had to endure. This in turn led to meetings, and meetings led to us finally starting to work together in January this year.

No, it’s not a typo: it did take 13 months. Unsurprisingly, the Prison Service turns out to be quite a closed, secure, cold-call resistant environment. Apparently, there are only two ways to get in: be invited by the management for a particular purpose or be invited by a court of law for a prolonged all-inclusive stay. The second option being somewhat unappealing, it did actually take 13 months to find support high enough up the structure to be able to start. It’s just as well I didn’t know at the start or I might have never bothered to try. Ignorance is bliss, apparently (sadly, this rule seems not to work in my chess games).

Theoretically, chess can have huge benefits in a prison - intellectual rigour, channelling aggression, positive attention focusing, cheap and inclusive, teaches social rules, decision making, logical thinking. If the above looks strangely familiar to every single reader, that’s the point: our pitch to prisons can pretty much be a carbon copy of our pitch to primary schools that we all know so well.

The benefits of chess for children, which we always communicate to schools, are directly transferable to this environment. Well, perhaps except boys playing with girls. And even more, actually: whilst we do go to some tough schools, children generally don’t struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. Anyone who’s read John Healy’s brilliant The Grass Arena will have seen what prison chess can do to combat these.

The bottom line is that many a resident of these questionable-quality, tax-funded establishments is there precisely because of their unfortunate inability to make sensible decisions, either through not thinking before making one or through mis-evaluating potential outcomes.

Thanks to CSC’s support, the project is now developing. We’re getting close to securing some key partnerships with other organisations interested in prisoner welfare. Since May, chess clubs have started in one more wing, and we’re hoping to team up with a local charity to open a free chess school for prisoner’s children. As with our chess programme in primary schools, the prison school’s numeracy course has weekly chess (I promise I won’t have prisoners do bishop worksheets).

I’d love to say more about it, but it is all in very early stages. The next few months will be crucial and no-one can say where it will lead. It is thus too early to give even preliminary conclusions on the real-life, practical impact the CSC programme has had at HMP Bristol.

But watch this space: it’s working, it’s expanding, so by the time the Classic starts in December I might actually be able to say whether it’s been an all-round catastrophic failure, yet another success for CSC, or something in between. Perhaps the most depressing outcome would be to learn that it has just passed unnoticed, but the ignoramus that I tend to be, I have simply assumed that this won’t be the case.