Sporting Chances

25 Jul 2016

It was my very first time to be called a champion.

As a summer of sport reaches its climax in Brazil, people are also building up a sweat behind prison walls. Whether on treadmills, football pitches or badminton courts, sport can be a diversion and a release, as well as providing a potential route to employment. In her report on prison education, Dame Sally Coates emphasised the value of sports in custody, and challenged the Football Association and football clubs to play a more active role inside, offering coaching and refereeing courses, for example.

Together with the National Alliance of Sports for the Desistance of Crime, PET wanted to hear what people inside prisons thought about the availability of sport in prisons and about its impact. We put out a call for contributions in the April issue of Inside Time. The responses we received spoke of a value of exercise that goes beyond bicep building and calorie burning. Here are some examples.

Ross

Ross played rugby for 34 years, most lately at HMP The Mount. The sport, he says, has been a “constant source of joy” in his life, and the opportunity to continue in custody has made a “huge difference” to his experience of prison.

“Being able to continue playing it in closed conditions has been nothing short of miraculous...the gift of being outside and training two to three times a week, plus the challenge of a league competition from local clubs gave such focus to the week. It gave my teammates and I a sense of camaraderie and achievement that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”

Adam

Adam, at HMP Nottingham, came into custody with a very successful sports career behind him, running gyms, coaching athletes, and even holding World Titles in both Tae Kwon Do and kickboxing. Having been used to carefully regulating his exercise and diet, the “awful food” and curtailed gym sessions of prison were a “huge shock to the system,” he wrote. To compensate, he created his own work-out regime in his cell, making weights from bottles of water. Later, he began teaching fellow prisoners Yoga and Tai Chi, and noticed huge benefits.

"After training many people in prison, I have even greater respect for the benefits of exercise. Many crimes are committed by people who suffer from low self-confidence and a lack of discipline. I'm a big believer that changing just one aspect of a person's life, positively, can have a domino effect on other areas of their life. 

"With improved self-confidence, having realised they can achieve a goal, a person is less likely to re-offend. Aside from the physical benefits, the fittest people exhibit lower levels of stress hormones and regular gym users have significantly improved scores on measures of anger and overall mood, it baffles me that the gym is considered such a low priority in prisons."

Mark

The broader benefits of sports were strikingly illustrated in a letter from Mark at HMP Parkhurst. Mark, who is in his 40s, came to prison overweight but decided he needed to “do something about it” and so began attending the gym and playing badminton. When he was approached by a fellow prisoners, ‘Mr Cen’, to partner up for a tournament Mark said he felt “out of his comfort zone”. ‘Mr Cen’ was from West Africa, and Mark had “barely associated” with anyone of a different race before. But, wrote Mark, “‘Mr Cen’ has a heart of gold and a belief that all things are possible”. The enthusiasm proved contagious. The two teamed up, and went on to win round after round of the badminton tournament. Helped by ‘Mr Cen’s’ “perpetual kind words” and the pair’s natural partnership, they claimed victory.  

“I was very emotional during the ceremony for several reasons,” writes Mark. “It was my very first time to be called a champion. Exercise has broadened my horizons and given me a total stranger for a true friend. I now have a different view and attitude towards diversity, culture and religion.”