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Rowing Out of Jail

Ben Farinazzo is an ex-serviceman, Lifeline ambassador and father of three. Ben suffered PTSD and other mental health related issues as a result of his time in the Defence Force. He served in East Timor in the late 1990s as a part of the International Force East Timor or INTERFET and is now an ambassador for organisations such as Lifeline, Soldier On and the Invictus Games, where he won two gold medals 3 years ago for rowing.

Recently Ben’s charitable work saw him head out to the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Hume. This is Canberra’s major jail which houses both men and women from maximum security to remand inmates. Ben was part of a program that went to the jail and introduced them to the rowing machine. I sat down with Ben to learn more about this innovative strategy and the benefits to the detainees in relation to their recovery.


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Q: So Ben, how did you get involved in heading out to the Alexander Maconochie Centre to work with detainees on the rowing machine?

A: So the initiative was started up by ACT rowing and the staff at the Alexander Maconochie centre as a way to assist their detainees to learn about physical health, as well as to help connect with something outside of the prison.

Q: What did you do with the detainees during your time there?

A: I was really excited to be asked to be a part of it, I hadn’t done anything like this before with detainees inside of a prison. They thought it might be good for someone of my stature and background in the military to go in there and connect with the detainees. I understood that they had 6 rowing machines inside and that they had some limited experience with using the machines. We met the detainees and that was a little bit of  a nerve racking experience. I hadn’t been in a prison before and we were given no details about the crime that had been committed. We then put the detainees on to the rowing machine, for just 10 strokes, to get a sense of indoor rowing. Which was a load of fun. We then broke down the stroke in to its basic pieces and stages.

Q: Was it optional for the detainees to participate?

A: They were there voluntarily to participate in a one day program. Rowing Australia is looking at facilitating a similar program with youth detention detainees. I’m not sure that will have the same effect as it does with the adults as in many cases their sentences are short. The people that I worked with have long sentences and may be incarcerated for a large majority of the rest of their lives. These are the people who are really willing to learn and engage with the program.


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Q: Had any of the detainees had previous experience with rowing?

A: The only experience from my understanding they had with rowing was using the rowing machine. I don’t think any of them have experience with on water rowing, and the only experience they had was self taught in jail, on the rowing machine.

Q: Overall how did the inmates receive the program?

A: The detainees absolutely loved the session that we held for them. You could feel the dynamic of the room shift to one of real excitement by the end. They all asked us if we could come back to continue the training. It was such a rewarding experience because it wasn’t just about rowing on the machine, it was more about human connection and something to do and think about besides the normal routine of being in prison.

Q: I know that you found rowing and training a big part of your recovery, could you see parallels for the detainees and their recovery and transition back in to normal life?

A: I think what we found with the inmates, was that by jumping on the machine they allowed themselves to be open to learning new things. Opening their minds and being open to doing things a different way meant that the detainees were able to learn more about themselves. An example here was that we got all athletes to do a 1000 meter test on the machine. Like you would expect from a school kid a lot of the athletes went out very hard early and struggled greatly at the end. I then explained to them the idea of even pacing your race. This means you go out slower, but still manage to get a faster overall time. This was almost a light bulb moment for some of the detainees, very symbolic for possibly why some of these people may have ended up in jail.

Q: Have you made plans to head out there again anytime soon or have you kept in contact with any of the detainees?

A: So there is a plan to run a series of 4 training sessions over 4 weeks, as a part of a development program and to get other detainees onboard. We set the detainees up with a leader board for the 1000 meter test and a 30 minute test in the meantime so they can work on their skills and compete against each other. I would love to go back to see how they have all improved and bring more detainees into the program.

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