Investigating the role of sport in prisons
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A commentary on how sport in prisons could be a long-term winning bet for prisoners and society itself

By 2016, the number of inmates in France reached 69,375, well over the the allotted space limit of 58,000. In some prisons in the Paris region, the occupancy rate reaches 200%. This causes many problems such as the lack or total absence of respect for fundamental human rights (family rights, right to work, right to health…), as well as tensions among detainees and with the prison staff. So what can be done to improve everyday life? Regardless of classic arguments about the living conditions - in a material sense - or education, sport is still an underused tool that can make a big the difference.

Unfortunately, France is not a good example in this area. Even though the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Sports signed a protocol in 2007 to implement sports practice in prisons and set up educational programmes to support inmates, much remains to be done. Only 300 sport instructors are currently organising activities which means one instructor per 233 inmates. The sports federations are not very present either, counting only 17 out of hundreds of federations partnered with penitentiary centres.

However, the benefits of sport projects in prisons are real. In the short term, it improves the daily life of the prisoners (reduction of tensions, improved morale, etc.) and in the long term, the effects can be all the more significant. Sport can be used to overcome, in part, the lack of education and the problem of ill health. These problems constitute an obstacle to full integration back into society. Sport can also be used as a form of resocialisation to allow prisoners to integrate some of society’s moral codes (such as mutual respect, following rules and accepting defeat) and help them to rebuild themselves through being part of a group, training and achieving an objective. The benefits hopefuly reduce levels of relapse/reincarceration.

The journey towards the establishment of sport in prisons will be tough and lengthy. Many challenges exist. Firstly, given that the overall conditions to improve the health of prisoners needs to increase, investing in sport in the long term, during a time of austerity, is a difficult case to argue. There also remains the question of the capability of prisons to host sport infrastructure and facilities as well as the lack of knowledge on how to administer the programmes. Along with this, the lack of clarity and visibility of the trainings to become a sport instructor within a prison must be addressed. Finally, we should not forget the need for adapted facilities for the four percent (and increasing) of incarcerated women and seniors.

Urgent action is needed to ensure access to sport for all so that it can be recognised as a human right, everywhere.




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