A Sporting Chance for Prison Inmates: The Importance of Sport in Prison

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A Sporting Chance for Prison Inmates: The Importance of Sport in Prison

This article will explore why sport in prison is important for not only the benefit of prison inmates, but for broader society.

It will outline the availability of sports and sporting programs in Australian prisons, and explore how there can help prevent the onset of mental health conditions as well as assist in the treatment of existing conditions.

Also discussed will be Confit, a not-for-profit organisation bringing fitness to Australian prisons, both adult and juvenile with a focus on its founder, Joe Kwon, who is a former inmate who turned his life around whilst in prison.

Further, with discussing a United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism global initiative, we shall see how sport in prisons may be better funded and Australian society can become a safer place as a result of sport.

Finally, we will discuss the expert views of the neuroscience, psychiatric and psychological community, in relation to how sport in prisons can improve health of inmates, reduce recidivism and better prepare an inmate to become a contributing member of society.

Sport which is available in Australian prisons

Football, soccer, tennis, volleyball, basketball, jogging, table tennis and gym work are sporting activities available in prisons, in which inmates may participate. At some correctional facilities, badminton is also available.

At many prisons throughout the country, in addition to intra prison competitions, many facilities permit sporting bodies from open society to visit the prisons and compete against prison teams in a variety of sporting events. Some states permit an inmate to participate in local community sporting events, such as footy or soccer matches, who is eligible under day-release criteria.

Boxing: the misunderstood, missing sport

In a study commissioned by the UK Ministry of Justice several years ago by Professor Rosie Meeks, a psychologist and prison researcher on sport in prisons, one of 12 recommendations was that the government should consider boxing and martial arts exercises be allowed in prisons. This recommendation was number 7.

The report, ‘sporting chance’ published in 2018, a review of sport in youth and adult prisons saw professional sporting bodies come together to collaborate with prisons to target reoffending. Despite this, boxing is banned in all UK gaols, with the government’s response in relation to the professor’s recommendation declaring “we have no plans to make boxing or martial arts-based activities permissible”.

This appears to be the sentiment applied to Australian correctional facilities also, despite it once being permissible with boxing rings being in some prison gyms and even iron-man events at Victoria’s now closed Pentridge prison featuring professional boxers sparring with inmates.

Boxing is permitted in many country’s sporting activities within prison walls and interestingly is included in Confit’s itinerary though it is certainly not permitted as part of the program in NSW juvenile centres or indeed adult prisons.

The rehabilitative quality of sport

Global studies attribute sport on the inside to provide a prisoner with at least 7 basic values, being respect, autonomy, motivation, equality, self-esteem, companionship and last but not least, health. It is not only physical health but also mental health.

By virtue of rules in sport, people learn to control their emotions and develop patience in order to avoid sanctions for breaching the rules. Team sports or working in groups is shown by research to improve self-esteem and gain a sense of belonging, things which affect every inmate on being incarcerated.

One such much respected Spanish study is an analysis of sports-educational programs in prison, which leads to an inclusive global approval of the intrinsic value of sport in correctional facilities and covers that of numerous countries research studies. This includes Australia which indicates the personal and social values learned by inmates which assist in integration into society.

Sport offers the inmate an opportunity for the main psychological suffering experienced by a prisoner, that of loss of identity, depression, grief and paranoia, to be lessened as a result of the overall feeling of wellbeing generated by participation in sport.

Included in the Spanish study were complimentary comments in relation to similar studies in Greece, Italy, England, Wales and Australia, all reporting similar positive results in the area of physical, mental and social wellbeing of prisoners through sport in prisons.

NSW prison sports programs

The Frank Baxter youth justice centre has collaborated with the ‘Start Strong Pathways Together’ program to offer the inmates in juvenile justice the opportunity of participating in a program designed to improve the physical, mental and social wellbeing of youth and indeed adults.

Frank Baxter is one of several NSW juvenile justice centres which has implemented the Confit program, Confit being an organisation which conducts an exercise program combined with mentorship, education and employment.

David Lowe, manager of Frank Baxter centre says that the program not only assists those undertaking it but also those who aspire to do so. The manager says it promotes positive mental health and behaviour throughout the centre  leading to a more harmonious environment for both the youth and staff.

Mid 2022 was graduation day of a 9-week program at the youth justice centre, consisting of burpees, push-ups and squats amongst other exercises.

Joe Kwon, head of the program was an ex-drug dealer who spent 9 years in many NSW prisons and who had turned his life around, despite feeling his life was over when he commenced his sentence at 21 years of age. He survived by virtue of the same regimen he was now putting the Frank Baxter boys through and personally knowing how hard it is when one is released, he and his staff will mentor the boys for a further 12 months assisting them with education and employment.

This philosophy of the program is called the ‘G-code’, G being for goal setting and is delivered by Confit founded by Joe Kwon and which amongst its staff are more ex-cons who have also turned their lives around and desire to contribute to the community by preventing others from returning to incarceration.

How the training instructor turned his life around

Joe Kwon met a white-collar inmate (an accountant by profession) during his sentence who encouraged in him the value of education and self-worth. Subsequently he studied commerce at university before setting up his program in an effort to reduce recidivism.

He also attended the university of New South Wales (UNSW) graduating with a bachelor of marketing/management degree, having successfully completed a higher school certificate whilst incarcerated. Confit is supported by two NSW charitable groups, impact 100 and shine for kids to endeavour to stop children from returning to youth detention or prison and has also partnered odyssey house and rise foundation.

The University of NSW is also in partnership with Confit, with Mary Teague, director of access, equity and inclusion at UNSW stating that the university is committed to providing equitable access to enrolment with one of Confit’s student’s already having enrolled at the university.

Australian prisons embrace parkruns

Parkruns now take place in prisons in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland, seeing staff and prisoners participating together, providing improved mental and physical health for both cohorts.

Parkruns are an initiative of Peter Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE FRSA consisting of 5-kilometre events for joggers and walkers, which take place every Saturday morning in thousands of locations in over 20 countries. There is a junior parkrun also, which takes place every Sunday morning.

This was man who knew the psychological benefits of exercise, having been made a ward of the state as a 5-year-old boy in South Africa. Moving to the United Kingdom in 1995, he had a nervous breakdown and found that exercise took his mind to a free place.

Inmates who participate in sport in prisons say something similar along the lines of when you exercise in any way, you may still be incarcerated but your mind is free for that period of time.  Psychological studies from around the globe support this sentiment wholeheartedly.

An Australian study, Giving Prisoners a Sporting Chance, by Dr David Gallant who is a research fellow at Melbourne University and discusses parkruns in a more expansive form, finds that sport also reduces violence within prisons and encourages positive lifestyle choices such as substance abuse, sleeping and diet.

This is because sport promotes better moods, contributing to an improved prison atmosphere, including inmate engagement with work and education which leads to more positive staff & prisoner interaction. This in turn leads to a safer prison.

Saving lives through sport in prisons– United Nations

The United Nations Office of Counter Terrorism (UNOCT) is another global organisation endeavouring to promote sport as an integral tool to reduce crime and indeed recidivism, in particular radicalisation and violent extremism conducive to terrorism.

It will of course focus through the UN peace development fund, on other matters which seem on a larger scale than sport in prisons, however, it will also include prisons the world over, due to them being somewhat of a breeding ground for radicalisation, etc. UNOCT will work with sports federations, regional organisations, academia and private companies to ensure support to member states of which Australia is one having donated usd2,247,089 to the UNOCT trust fund since 2009.

It will fund amongst other organisations, law enforcement, civil society including public and private sector entities involved in sports-based counter terrorism and violent extremism related initiatives.

This is another funding avenue for Australia to explore to ensure sport in prisons is rolled out expediently and comprehensively. The United Nations General Assembly will review the strategy every 2 years making it a living document attuned to member states’ priorities.

Sport develops life skills – the neuroscience

Physical activity is scientifically known, as explained by the national library of medicine, to stimulate brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters which make a person feel better in a general sense. As is confirmed by global scientific research, participating regularly improves emotional wellbeing to the point it can reduce stress and symptoms of mental health such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. Blood is pumped to the brain through sport encouraging clearer thought processes and increases the size of the memory part of the brain, called the hippocampus.

When you exercise endorphins are released by your body which interact with receptors in your brain which encourages a positive feeling in your body allowing improved thinking, learning, problem-solving and an overall positive feeling of joy. Endorphins are chemicals (hormones) which have the effect of relieving pain and stress.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) which is the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. department of justice reported on a 3-year study from 2018 -2021 by the neuroscience field which revealed that more than half of incarcerated people re-entering society suffer from the effects of at least one traumatic brain injury (TBI) which is approximately 5 times that of general society.

The same report indicated that the possibility remains that prison officers may also be suffering from TBIs, with testing undergoing in this area also. Most people forget that prisons also affect staff members. An American study found that the average national life expectancy was 78.5 years as opposed to that of a prison officer which was 59 years. The fact of a closer relationship between staff and inmates ultimately changes the paradigm from a state of fight or flight to calm and relaxed, negates the previously contributing stressful factors on both sides. A safer prison and a longer life span is the result.

This is another critical reason for expediting a fully comprehensive well-funded sport in prisons program in Australia, not simply for the sake of mental health of prisoners but also that of correctional staff and we shouldn’t forget the safety of the community as a result.

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David McCulloch

David McCulloch

David McCulloch has spent years assisting Australian prison inmates and immigration detainees, collaborated with management and academics to establish a Nordic-style recidivism reduction program, written extensively on the history of criminal law and the inequities that plague the criminal justice system and been involved in law-related podcasts and television programs.

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