Book review: Sport in prison: Exploring the role of physical activity in correctional settings

Rosie Meek
Abingdon: Routledge (2014) ISBN 978-0-414-8576-1

Reviewed by Alan Walmsley
Physical Readiness Assessment Moderator, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography:

Alan has worked in the sport and exercise field in New Zealand for more than three decades. He is a life member and former Deputy Chair of Sport and Exercise Science New Zealand. Alan joined Corrections in March 2013 to design and develop the Physical Readiness Assessment (PRA) for Corrections Officers, and, through his involvement with front-line staff, has developed an interest in the role of sport and physical activity in the prison environment.

Sport in Prison was written following a series of research projects in UK prisons between 2008 and 2012, including work on the 2nd Chance programme and the HMP Portland Sport Academy. Dr Meek’s research was centred on the means of promoting desistance from crime among the prison population, especially young offenders.

The book presents an overview of the research evidence for the benefits conferred by sport and physical activity programmes in prison and provides extensive examples of good practice. It is a valuable resource for both front-line staff and policy makers. In the words of the author:

“As a psychologist I am especially interested not just in observing and theorising the prison gym itself but in identifying, revealing and debating the narratives of those who work in and engage with prison-based sport and physical activity and the rhetoric of those decision makers who prescribe the ways in which prisons make use of physical activity.”

While the book inevitably reflects the UK prison system, the messages it contains seem universally applicable, particularly with respect to the young offender population. Meek explores the role of sport and physical activity in reducing re-offending, contributing to education and training, promoting health and wellness, and promoting “good citizenship”. There is also a brief exploration of the potential negative outcomes of sport and physical activity programmes in prisons, ranging from the view that promoting some activities may actually contribute to an increase in offending, and to the risk associated with the public perception that sport in prison is merely improving an offender’s physical ability to commit crime.

In New Zealand, as in the UK, the prison population is predominantly male, and so, while the majority of the book deals with initiatives for men, there is a chapter devoted to the role of sport and physical activity in relation to the specific needs of women in prison. While recognising the institutional and social barriers to participation in sport and physical activity among women prisoners, Meek says,

Principles of best practice in engaging women prisoners in sport and physical activity includes (sic) providing a diverse programme of activities, promoting physical and mental health through sport and physical activity as a result of well-developed links between healthcare and gym departments, blending literacy and numeracy into physical education, offering sports-based qualifications alongside opportunities to gain work experience in the community and providing through-the-gate support to establish links with potential employers and community groups.”

In the concluding chapter, Meek makes the point that, even though sport and physical activity can be “a ‘hook’ with which to engage and motivate prisoners”, considerable research is still needed to clarify the meanings of sport and physical activity, not only in prison but also in the community, to establish whether it has intrinsic value or whether it is just a way of engaging people.

Overall, the book is an authoritative, practical, and engaging review of the influence sport and physical activity can have on the lives of both prisoners and staff. In closing his foreword, Lord Ramsbotham, former HM Chief Inspector of prisons says,

I hope that all those at whom [the book] is aimed will show their appreciation to its author, by listening to her advice, commissioning the suggested research and vastly increasing access to the benefits that sport brings to the rehabilitation process, and so the protection of the public.”