United Kingdom: how sport in prison could stop reoffending

The MoJ’s promise of money is welcome, but I propose a radical, far-reaching sport programme for the justice system.

Rosie Meek is the author of a review into sport in the youth justice system.

Working with people in prison and tackling reoffending is one of the biggest challenges our society faces, and one in which I have long argued that sport and physical activity have a unique and important role to play – yet it remains overlooked. In prisons, just as in our communities, the impact of sport can be far-reaching. Participation can not only improve health and behaviour but can directly contribute to efforts to tackle reoffending, reduce violence and conflict, develop communication skills, and in particular provide a meaningful route into education and employment.

Last year I was asked by the Ministry of Justice to conduct an independent review into the use of sport and physical activity in youth and adult prisons. I visited and audited the provision of prisons, young offender institutions and secure children’s homes throughout England and Wales, speaking with individuals from across the staffing structure and the children, young adults and adults in their care. I invited responses to a public consultation and met with community groups and dozens of people whose lives have been changed through sport in prison. These experiences helped to shape the recommendations I set out in my review.

Although the findings demonstrate that much still needs to be done, the review highlights positive sporting achievements that have already taken place in our prisons – supported by organisations such as Parkrun UK, the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and Fight for Peace – which have provided the motivation and skills for people to turn their lives around. These achievements are all the more remarkable given the levels of despair and brutality often encountered within our prison system.

But provision remains patchy and underdeveloped. My recommendations called for our prisons to be supported with an integrated physical activity and wellbeing strategy, because physical activity can only be fully promoted and implemented if it is underpinned by a whole-prison commitment to improving mental and physical wellbeing. This in turn needs to be the result of effective partnerships, not just between staff in the prison gym and their colleagues in prison healthcare and education, for example, but between our prisons and the amazing network of community sporting groups and bodies we are fortunate to have throughout the UK.

An integrated strategy will help us respond to the diverse needs of those held within our prisons. We incarcerate an increasingly ageing population: there are now more over-60s in our prisons than under-21s. And provision for women and girls is particularly underdeveloped, so my review calls for a national strategy on physical activity for the female population, in order to guide practice and target resource.

Women and girls in custody do not engage in physical activity to the same extent as men and boys, and as a result they are not benefiting from the social, physical and psychological benefits it offers. There is a strong case for the role of physical activity in meeting the unique needs of women in custody, but this needs to be supported with approaches that reflect an understanding of gendered barriers to participation and exercise, which often mirror those outside of prison.

Sport and physical activity have enormous potential to motivate individuals to desist from crime, particularly by increasing employability and encouraging reluctant learners to engage in education when they would otherwise be unwilling or feel unable to participate due to negative experiences (as evidenced in a previous paper). Given the widespread interest displayed by men and women in custody in pursuing sports and physical activity-based qualifications, I urge prisons to support training in these areas. Such qualifications provide ex-offenders with a direct route into employment if supported with relevant work experience and external placements.

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