The Blog

Summer of Sports Is a Missed Opportunity for Prisoners

My fear is that the summer of sport will only be seen as the distraction that was hoped (I earnestly hope successfully) to prevent a summer of violence and disorder that comes when prisoners are just locked up and left to fail.

On Saturday 120 prisoners reportedly overtook a prison wing and last Monday a man gouged his eyes out in protest of the sweltering conditions at his prison. These are the latest serious incidents to hit the news after recently following concern that conditions were 'deplorable' by the Chief Inspectors of Prisons. We know that operational pressures and a shortage of staff in many prisons are leaving prisoners locked up in overcrowded, hot, stuffy cells and unable to get to classes, jobs, or other meaningful activities. In those conditions, distractions can seem like gifts from heaven to prisoners and staff alike. 'Thank God for the World Cup' as I recently heard one prison service manager put it. As the operational difficulties persist and temperatures continue to soar, I am sure that his colleagues will be praying that prisoners are as glued to their television sets as the Commonwealth Games continue.

BBC's Newsnight's interview earlier this month with Nick Hardwick came at the same time as a Howard League report showing 30% of prison staff have been cut in past three years in England and Wales whilst the numbers of people being sentenced has increased. The report also showed there has been an increase in assaults on officers, between prisoners and self-inflicted deaths in that time.

To address these security risks with fewer officers, more people have to be locked up in their cells for longer, in the worst cases up to 23 hours a day, meaning they can't get involved in activities designed to improve behaviour and stop them committing crime after they leave prison. We know initiatives helping prisoners to learn new skills work.

Government research shows 81% of PET's learners do not reoffend, so there is a strong case for prisons to support people with their education. But they have to first convince prisoners to want to study, as many have negative associations that go back to their schooling. Using sport to engage them can be really effective as PET argued in a report released to coincide with the Olympics in 2012.

As our report Fit For Release highlighted, sport has many benefits from helping to reduce violent tendencies and enabling people to cope with mental health conditions to improving prisoners' prospects on release with opportunities for college, employment or volunteering all of which make them less likely to reoffend. The National Audit Office has estimated that crime committed by ex-offenders costs up to £13bn per year, more than the cost of the 2012 Games.

It is a huge missed opportunity that in this summer of sport, prisoners have just been watching sports instead of harnessing that interest to more positive ends. Despite many projects and even routine access to the gym being cancelled due to lack of human resource, we know of at least two prisons that held innovative sports projects to great success; in HMP Brixton a World Cup themed football tournament brought people from different cultures together and at Feltham young offenders' institute an annual project with the Saracens Rugby club has greatly improved the behaviour and the job prospects of the young people who have taken part in the 10 week courses.

Our report highlighted further examples proving just how beneficial sports-based learning is. We've also received many letters from prisoners keen to say how sport has helped them. Key to this was having the right people in the right places, teachers based in the gym to teach maths and English, specialist PE officers who developed good relationships with prisoners to encourage them to keep progressing. But when, as now, prison staffing is under pressure, it is often the time of these staff that gets diverted into maintaining basic security on the wings.

Two years on from Fit for Release, amongst all these changes and challenges within criminal justice the potential for sports to rehabilitate prisoners is being side-lined. I was hugely disappointed to hear that a two week summer project involving many positive role models, athletes, academics and specialist community organisations was cancelled at a prison due to staffing levels.

I wish that this could be remembered as a summer of sport in the prison estate for the best of reasons - because we are using sport to motivate change for the better. My fear is that the summer of sport will only be seen as the distraction that was hoped (I earnestly hope successfully) to prevent a summer of violence and disorder that comes when prisoners are just locked up and left to fail.

Fit for Release was co-authored by Professor Rosie Meek.