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Prison sport policies: Overview and outlook

Copyrights: Think tank Sport and Citizenship

Prison sport policies: Overview and outlook

A relatively recent innovation, the use of sport in the prison setting is changing. Originally seen as a way of filling time, it now takes various forms and is seen more in the light of social reintegration. However, the lack of hindsight when looking at these schemes and certain persistent constraints make it difficult to assess their impact on prisoners.

Considering the history of prisons, sport has only been relatively recently introduced in European prisons and it was given a disciplinary and occupational role, usually as a real addition to the pain of incarceration. Until the end of the 20th century, for the prisoner, doing physical activity meant, at best, serving his or her time and, at worst, bearing the unbearable (Courtine, 1980). Although it was justified by a more humanitarian philosophy and approach to detention, for the prison administrators these activities were mainly seen as a way of making the prisoners more docile (Foucault, 1975) and having a calming effect on prison spaces, making them easier to manage (Gallant et al. 2015).

The prisoners’ spontaneous adoption of these recreational activities, which were badly supervised, funded, and structured, was enough for the prison administration to declare their benefits to the public. These benefits existed in certain circumstances and for some prisoners, but they were seen to be very slight and unevenly spread among the population when the different social reports and the socialisation process through sport in the establishment were analysed in detail. This is clear from the difficulty faced by women in accessing these activities which were largely organised in line with the dominant historical model of sport – male-oriented and heteronormative.

Far from being inclusive, the sporting activities, which were mainly provided for men and insufficiently resourced, were reduced to very limited form and content, at the expense of the original educational aims expressed in the first official texts: one session a week on average, in makeshift spaces in the prison, with little choice of sports which were traditionally seen as masculine, in line with a popular body image (football and bodybuilding), under the supervision of a prison guard (in the best of cases, trained as a sport instructor by the prison service).

Not very inclusive activities

For nearly two decades now there has been a change in sport policy because of a growing awareness of the difficulties of using sport as a real tool for reintegrating prisoners and as a way of individualising their sentence. The prison authorities seem to be giving a new direction to the development of sport, through agreements with sport federations inviting sports instructors from outside to come into prisons, diversifying, increasing and opening up the sports approaches, disciplines and projects and by renovating or constructing dedicated sports grounds in prisons.

The place for doing sport (Sempé, 2016) is becoming more structured, more complex and more diverse in two major directions: the vision of sport and the vision of the sentence. The different measures proposed vary between, on the vision of sport, a leisure/occupation/supervision logic and a performance/structure/regulation logic, and on the vision of the sentence a notion of incarceration centred on managing the detention and a logic of preparing for reintegration. There are more and more socio-sporting projects and programmes aimed at people who are gradually being recognised not just as criminals, but as people with a certain vulnerability or social disaffiliation, and special needs associated as much with their social condition as with their health.

Vision of sport, vision of the sentence

However, in spite of this change in prison sport policies in favour of sport with an educational and social objective, sociological studies call for a measure of caution. First of all, not all detainees have access to these socio-sporting programmes. Then, the short time span, the variety and the bottom-up logic of these schemes makes the identification and perpetuation of any positive social impacts on prisoners’ situations and careers more complicated. Finally, the realities and constraints of prison conditions, be they material, human, or political, lead many establishments to continue with the dominant historical model of doing sport in prison – a model which has been shown scientifically to have a very doubtful outcome in terms of reintegration.

[This article is from the Inclusion Through Sport journal from the think tank Sport and Citizenship]

Sport and Citizenship was created in Brussels in September 2007 and is the first European think tank who focuses on the analysis of sports policies and the societal impact of sport. Sport and Citizenship relies on years of expertise and enjoys recognition from public authorities and stakeholders in European sport. It is thus regularly consulted by international and European institutions, member states, the sports movement and civil society who recognise it as a privileged interlocutor in this field.


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Gaëlle Sempé for the think tank Sport and Citizenship


Monday, December 9, 2019 - 14:35