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.