Wharton’s Rugby Team Goes to Prison

I joined the Wharton Rugby Football Club (“WRFC,” or the “Wharthogs”) knowing full well that every game would make my body hurt. I never expected that rugby would make my heart ache just as badly, but one experience over Spring Break did just that.

WRFC spent our break on tour in Argentina. For the final match of our trip, the Wharthogs boarded a bus to a maximum-security prison facility outside Buenos Aires. A team of armed guards took our passports and escorted us inside.  We passed through a maze of concrete walls, iron gates, barbed wire and sentry towers. Our team was allowed one camera among the 22 of us. Everything else, except essential rugby gear, was prohibited.

There, on a prison-yard rugby pitch, we met our opponents for the day: Los Espartanos. A team of inmates, complete with face tattoos, extensive knife scarring and pasts that we dared not ask about. These were men who had lost all freedom and had together accumulated more than 500 years of prison sentences. Many had committed multiple murders. To say that most of us were intimidated would be an understatement.

We played three matches of full-tackle rugby and quickly learned how wrong we had been when we met them. Our opponents grinned joyfully all afternoon and played a clean game in terms of sportsmanship and penalties. The socioeconomic, cultural, legal and language barriers between us faded into the background while we shared the rugby pitch.  It was then that we realized: despite their official status as convicts, Los Espartanos were a group of mostly young men who, at their core, were not so different from the Wharthogs. By the end of our second match, we had built enough rapport that we mixed our teams for the final match.

Los Espartanos were formed and organized by the Fundación Espartanos, an Argentine nonprofit focused on holistic rehabilitation of inmates. The Fundación uses rugby as the central pillar of its programming.

Team membership is offered to these men as a reward and a privilege; only the best-behaved individuals are allowed to join, and only the most disciplined and committed are allowed to remain. They typically practice five days per week and have a zero-tolerance policy for misbehavior and unsportsmanlike conduct. In ten years, they have not had a single on-field incident, despite a membership ostensibly composed of Argentina’s riskiest men.

In addition to athletics, the Fundación has a spiritual component (75-80% of Argentines identify as Roman Catholic). “Love thy neighbor” is a core value in the program. The team gathers for a weekly prayer meeting every Friday, which contributes to a sense of redemption and forgiveness for the past, and helps them experience joy and hope for the future.

The third element of the program is education and work. Los Espartanos are required to attend classes, where they improve literacy and learn various trades that will support employment after their sentences end. Economic inclusion is a critical part of rehabilitation and reintegration into society; the Fundación is focused on preparing these men to re-enter the workforce and society, through both hard skills and personal character development.

And it’s working. Across 36 prisons, Los Espartanos have a recidivism rate of only 5%, compared to the historical Argentine average rate of 65%.  Selection bias undoubtedly contributes to these figures to some extent, but the results – both statistical and in the form of changed lives – are stunning. Pope Francis himself acknowledged Los Espartanos and offered his support and encouragement.

The best part of the day came at the end; the teams circled up, alternating members and joining arms for postgame remarks, and through a translator expressed how meaningful the match had been for both sides. Each team exchanged a jersey, following rugby tradition.

The host team then proceeded to cook a special meal for us; grilled Argentine choripanes (chorizo sausage sandwiches) and Coca-Cola might have been their best meal of the year. We spent time eating and making friends with Los Espartanos, while listening to their experiences. Our Spanish was generally very weak, but smiles and body language went a long way. One Wharthog asked an Espartano (through a translator) why he chose to participate. The man was only 10 years into his 35-year prison sentence. The heartbreaking answer: “Rugby is the only time I feel free.”

The entire experience was deeply meaningful. Walking out of the prison, past the guards, the towers, and a team of furious German Shepherds, was a jarring and solemn moment. We returned home with plenty to think about. Every Wharthog responded differently, but a few threads were common among all of us: we no longer saw Los Espartanos as violent convicts. We stopped seeing criminals with “Kill the Police” chest pieces and teardrops tattooed on their faces. Instead, we remembered fellow men who had come to terms with their past, who wanted a second chance and had made the difficult and admirable commitment to changing their lives through hard work and discipline.

Personally, I now see human beings, complete with the same measure of God-given dignity as the rest of us. This experience humbled me and showed me how small my own troubles are, by comparison. Los Espartanos reminded me to believe in hope and redemption, to choose to see the best in others and look for opportunities to forgive and to lift others up.

Tom Eastell (WG19) and Geoff Kalan (WG18) also contributed to this article.