Six more inmates join Lowie’s squad

Sir Graham Lowe attending the graduation of his prison programme Kick for the Seagulls at the Kohuora Auckland South Corrections Facility. Photo / Dean Purcell / NZME

This article was first published by the NZ Herald.

Tough-talking Corrections Minister Mark Mitchell has praised an ex-gang member about to be released after 11 years in jail who has turned his back on gang life and is graduating with a NCEA Level 2 certificate from a prison course designed by legendary rugby league coach Sir Graham Lowe.

Mitchell told the six graduates of the Kick for the Seagulls numeracy and literacy programme that he makes no apologies for his hardline gang approach, but applauded the men for the changes they had made.

At Tuesday’s graduation ceremony at Wiri Prison in South Auckland, Mitchell said the graduates would now be leaders after obtaining a certificate Foundation Skills L2 from the 17-week programme.

Sir Graham Lowe and Minister of Corrections Mark Mitchell attending the graduation at Wiri prison of the Kick for the Seagulls programme. Photo / Dean Purcell / NZME

“You men are now the leaders of your futures and you must continue along this path for the sake of yourselves, and your whānau,” Mitchell said.

He said as he and Sir Graham toured the South Auckland prison, they were approached by inmates, including an ex-president of the Mongrel Mob.

“He told Sir Graham and I he supported our gangs policy we are implementing and it will help more gang members leave the gang life.

“The feedback I have got from the inmates is ‘keep doing what you are doing’.

“That’s why I’m glad that prisons that have Sir Graham’s Kick for the Seagulls programme are so supportive of it.”

The Herald was invited to the graduation and spoke to three of the graduates. For those inmates, this was the first time they had graduated from anything.

They join an exclusive club - “Lowie’s team”. Included are players Sir Graham has coached throughout his remarkable career at Ōtāhuhu, the Kiwis, the Queensland State of Origin, Manly in Sydney and Wigan in the UK.

One of the new members of Lowie’s team is John - not his real name - who will next week leave prison after an 11-year lag. The heavily tattooed-faced inmate told the Herald he was a changed man from the know-it-all, 28-year-old gangster locked up many years ago.

“I have changed. I left the gang about four years ago and doing this course has given me confidence that I don’t have to go back to that life,” John said.

“The Kick for the Seagulls programme takes us out of our comfort zone, made us vulnerable and challenged us.

“I am released next week after 11 years and have a job lined up. I also want to reconnect with my whānau. I have a teenage son who I want to reconnect with and don’t want him to make the same mistakes I made. I want to be a better person and better father. I have never graduated from anything before. That’s what this certificate means to me.

“I can only make short-term goals after such a long lag but I also have long-term goals about starting a business, giving back to my community. That’s why I look at my life differently now.

“It’s time for a change. I have been in this system all my life.”

Stan is a lifer who was recalled to prison four years ago. Lifers are on lifetime parole and can be called back to prison for parole breaches or reoffending.

Stan, 59, said he’s had to change or face the prospect of dying in prison.

“I have adopted the 3 Cs,” Stan said. “Choices, chances, change. This course and this certificate has given me hope of achieving those goals.”

Lou, 28, is four years into an eight-year prison sentence.

He said weaving sport into learning helped him to read and write and he will continue on with his studies while he completes his sentence.

“I have never completed anything like this so for me, it’s a way forward,” Lou said.

Sir Graham said witnessing these men - his programme has helped almost 1000 inmates over six years it has operated - break their vicious cycle, was indescribable.

What a knight. Sir Graham Lowe is knighted in 2019 by then Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae. Photo / NZME

“I’ve had 90,000 Wigan fans at Wembley singing to me personally at a game and I get that same feeling of pride every time I watch these men graduate,” Sir Graham told the Herald.

“It is hard to describe.”

Sir Graham developed the programme after being told he could no longer coach because of health issues.

“What drove me to start with this was when I came to grips with retirement,” Sir Graham said.

“I’d had a number of health issues, like stroke and heart attacks as well as a brain hemorrhage and lost my memory, but I always wanted to give back to the poorer and disadvantaged communities who had given so much to me. I owed them so much.”

Sir Graham said after considering how he could do that, he went back to basics and what he knew best - coaching.

“I had a lot of things swirling in my head and thought ‘use your coaching principles to help with numeracy and literacy’.”

Starting with Post-it notes of a hundred principles, Sir Graham whittled his list down to 24, which was then culled to 12. These are the basics of the programme and comprise: Plan for a great year; What is a winning team; Let the dog see the rabbit; There is no such thing as can’t; Practise till the lights go off; Look for the man in the dinner suit; Never die wondering; Kick for the seagulls; Be ready and well prepared; Keep shifting the attack; Put up with the pain; Discover the power of your team early.

He said one time when he and his wife and children were driving back from holidays they called into a rural town for a coffee break.

“This car pulled up next to us and I thought, what’s going on here,” Sir Graham said.

“This big Māori guy jumped out of the car and said ‘I’m one of your sea gulls Lowie and this is my whānau in the car.

“We chatted for a bit and he said to me ‘once in Lowie’s team, always on Lowie’s team. The pride I had in that can’t be measured.”

Sir Graham would like his programme available to every inmate - remand and sentenced.

Mitchell agrees.

“As Police Minister I make no apologies for my gang approach but wearing my Corrections hat, I want inmates rehabilitated and want to see them come out of prison with a trade or a truck and driver’s licence that can make major differences to them and their whānau.

“I truly believe in rehabilitation and as minister want to see inmates succeed, not just be recycled through the system.”

By Joseph Los’e of the NZ Herald.