A group of Chilean convicts are learning to impart justice on a scruffy prison football pitch, hoping to turn around their lives by becoming referees when they finish out their jail terms.
The 20 men and 10 women are the first to be chosen for the special referee training program, which is intended to both reward them for good behavior and prepare them for re-entry to society.
They are lucky because opportunities for rehabilitation in Chile’s overcrowded prisons are scarce.
Claudio Storm, the executive director of the state-run Social Fund, says the initiative “seeks to generate opportunities for those who most need them.
“So, these people who once violated the laws of society, today are being trained and empowered to impart the rules of the game.”
In the men’s prison, a professional referee meets nine of his students out doors, teaching them the rules of soccer with the help of a video. He answers their questions and shows them a game from the recent World Cup in South Africa so they can analyze controversial calls.
Once the rules have been learned, they face a moment of truth: an inter-prisons tournament at the Colina I prison where their training will be put to the test.
The soccer field is surrounded by a high fence, and the turf grows patchily amid brown splotches of bare earth in the shadow of the Andes.
But whistles and music pierce the air as inmates excitedly follow the games from gray concrete cell blocks festooned with team banners and television antennas.
The referee ignores the shouting and pays close attention to the game, with an instructor intently watching.
Sometimes a player protests a call, and someone on the sidelines will shout not to forget who is the judge.
“I have played football all my life. It’s easy and fun,” 25-year-old inmate Rodrigo Alarcon says when the first half is over.
“There were plays where they committed errors but I let them play on. I didn’t make them pay so they would get tired and protest less. It’s better to let the game play out. It’s a contact sport, there will always be dangerous plays.
“We are accepting our punishment. So we are fit to impart justice on the field,” says Alarcon, who has 36 more months to serve for robbery but hopes to get out sooner.
Johnny Matamala, 27, who is also doing time for robbery, says that as a referee he hopes “to take a step forward. I want to get rid of the stigma that convicts face. We are discriminated against, we are seen as strange birds.”
Matamala has stood out in the course for his discipline. His teachers are trying to line him up with a neighborhood league.
In Chile, a referee can make between 15,000 and 20,000 pesos (30 and 40 dollars) for an amateur match. Scrambling for games here and there, referees can get three or four over the course of a weekend, bringing in nearly 500 dollars a month.
“To referee you have to have personality and respect,” says another convict, Marcos Ayala, 27. “Now I’m the one who enforces the rules in the game.”
“I have been a prisoner since I was a minor. My children are used to seeing me in jail. I don’t want to be in prison any more. I want an opportunity.”
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