They may be locked behind the bars of a maximum security prison, but, for almost 10 years, the Spartans have been proven to reduce reoffending rates in Argentina. Last year, Danielle Logue flew to Argentina as a visiting professor. She was there to study how the concept of a prison rugby team could be applied to other contexts. Then serendipity intervened. The end result is a radio story borne out of a collaboration between Danielle and 2SER journalist (and journalism student) Ninah Kopel.
I was in Argentina as a visiting professor at IAE Business School in 2017 to work with colleagues on social innovation projects, in particular a project on the Spartans. They’re a prisoner rugby team who can count the Pope among their fans! My friends and colleagues at IAE Business School, Tomas Farchi and Pablo Fernandez, provide a wonderful visiting program for academics, as an opportunity for cross-national learning and project collaboration.
I had seen the video messages the Pope had sent the team, and documentaries as well. So, I was really interested in how the team was working to reduce recidivism rates, as part of understanding how different socially innovative solutions are working in other countries.
For me, it's really important that research has impact, and that we get better at translating our ideas into channels beyond academic journals. The team at 2SER are so supportive in helping academics become better at this! That’s why I was also excited to learn that Ninah happened to be in Argentina at the same time.
While I was there, I saw tweets about a 2SER story Ninah had produced and I thought I'd reach out to say I'm also here doing this project, and she was really interested in collaborating.
When we met in a local café, I didn’t really consider her a student, she was more a proper journalist at that stage – and her Spanish skills are far better than mine!
I've only worked with students from the UTS Business School, so for me it was really interesting to learn more about what Ninah was observing in Argentina, and how she went about her side of the project. The main value for me was being able to talk with someone from a different discipline. But, it was also great to speak with someone from the Australian system, where we could have that conversation of, ‘Are you seeing what I'm seeing?’ or ‘What did you notice that was different?’ We had shared concerns about what was going on in the world, what our role was, how we could contribute, and how we could do better; it was really refreshing to be able to speak with an engaged, thoughtful, and articulate student in detail about stuff that really matters.
We were both fascinated with the team, but we came at it with a different end purpose. For Ninah, it was more about the story, whereas I was interested in socially innovative solutions, and ways of financing them. I was really interested in finding out what was actually happening, and thinking through whether this idea could diffuse to other places, or whether it was unique to Argentina.
What we found was that the people who were really leading it and championing it are really quite special people, and a lot of the success comes down to these few key people.
The overall idea is something worth testing, but the more we started to think about it, we realised that rugby itself plays a particular role in the class system and social structure in Argentina, I don't think it would have the same transformative impact in prisons in Australia.
For both of us, I think the really powerful thing was interviewing people, speaking to the coach and the players, and having that experience.
When this process started, I didn't know Danielle personally, but I knew she had worked with 2SER in the past. I was in Argentina as part of my international studies degree, working on another story about Argentina’s senate elections, and when Danielle saw my stories posted on Twitter, she was like, “By the way, I'm here too!”
Danielle explained she was doing a project on the Spartans, and thought I'd be interested in doing something too.
The first time we met was just to have a coffee and chat about what she was doing so I could get my head around it. Later on, we visited the prison itself and I went into it wanting to capture the experience Danielle was having. It's a really overwhelming sensory experience, and even more so for Danielle, since she didn't know the language!
When you're a journalist you go into spaces looking for a story, but Danielle's coming at it from the social innovation side, so she was making these observations like, ‘What is going on here that could potentially apply in other circumstances?’ Whereas I was more like, ‘Who are these people, what are they learning, what are they feeling?’
But that’s what makes it interesting. And this process is what we do at 2SER a lot: we go and work with academics and researchers and experts, and we find a way to bridge the gap between research and the everyday person. But Danielle’s research is so relatable already. You don't have to convince people that it's a human story, because that’s the whole point of it.
The Spartans do this thing called a rosary ceremony where they get up and talk about their feelings. It was a kind of fly-on-the-wall experience when I was there; listening to them talk in a really private, intimate way. There was then the expectation that I would get up and share something as well, which was really nerve-wracking. But, more than anything it showed that what they're doing with this team is really special, and it's allowing people to realise that at the end of the day they're just humans.
The whole experience made me realise there are such amazing opportunities to work together. Danielle opened up a home where she was staying in Buenos Aires to me, opened up her research and her ideas to me, and trusted me to run with them. That's really amazing.
I think the more we can do that, and the more we can make stories out of the ideas that are happening in this university, the more exciting they'll be for people, and that's awesome.
You can listen to Ninah’s story at 2ser.com/finding-freedom-in-prison/