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Using sport to promote adult learning in our prisons, Part 1

ag Rosie Meek
Teanga: EN

A prison learner (whose face is blurred to conceal his identity) jogs next to his coach down a track

Working with people in prison and tackling reoffending is one of the biggest challenges our society faces, and one in which I have long argued (see my 2013 book) that sport and physical activity have a unique and important - yet often overlooked - role to play.

In prisons, just as in our communities, the impact of sport can be far-reaching. Participation can not only improve health and behaviour but can directly contribute to efforts to reduce reoffending, in reducing violence and conflict, developing communication skills, and in particular by providing a route into education and employment.


Introducing the Meek review


Last year I was asked by the Ministry of Justice to carry out a review into the use of sport and physical activity in youth and adult prisons. In undertaking this review I visited and audited the provision of prisons, young offender institutions (YOI) and secure children’s homes throughout England and Wales, where I spoke with individuals from across the staffing structure and the children, young adults and adults in their care.

I invited responses to a public consultation and met with community groups and dozens of people whose lives have been changed through sport in prison. These experiences helped to shape the recommendations that I then set out in my review, which the Ministry of Justice published on August 11th.


Although my findings demonstrate that much still needs to be done, I was also able to highlight some of the positive sporting achievements which have already taken place in our prisons and which have provided the motivation and skills for people to turn their lives around. These achievements are all the more remarkable given the levels of despair and brutality often encountered within our prison system.

As well as celebrating these successes we need to develop mechanisms for rewarding and sharing good practice and I hope I have contributed to the latter by presenting a series of good practice examples from across the youth and adult estate.


Issues associated with prison education are embedded in each of my 12 recommendations, but two of these are particularly relevant:


Recommendation 1: Prisons should devise an integrated physical activity and wellbeing strategy.


A sign on a brick wall that shows the direction to various parts of a prison: B Wing, C Wing, D Wing, Visits, Healthcare, Education, Gymnasium


Physical activity can only be fully promoted and implemented if it is underpinned by an establishment-wide commitment to improving mental and physical wellbeing and is the result of effective partnerships between the gym and other departments, including education.

Sport and physical activity have enormous potential in motivating individuals to desist from crime, particularly in increasing employability and in motivating reluctant learners to engage in education when they would otherwise be unwilling or feel unable to participate due to negative experiences of education [1].  

In carrying out my review I found a small number of establishments where gym-based team-building sessions are used for newly established education classes, where education staff have evidently recognised the benefit of sport in promoting cohesion. Nevertheless it remains rare for non-PE teaching staff to spend time either in the gym or drawing on sport in their work, despite the obvious opportunities to capture the interest of learners by doing so.


Given the widespread interest displayed by men and women in custody in pursuing sports-based qualifications, I suggest that individual learning plans and sentence planning should, where supportive of rehabilitative objectives, include sports-based training and qualifications, relevant work experience/portfolio development, and appropriate external placements. Although most, if not all, establishments offer some form of fitness/physical activity/sport qualifications (typically stand-alone Level 1 qualifications in adult establishments), the outcomes of such offerings are I think always enhanced when genuine partnerships between gym and educational staff drive the delivery of such programmes.

In also enabling prisoners to gain valuable experience, I suggest that establishments should consider peer-led classes where appropriate (including yoga, circuits, spinning, etc.), targeting different levels of ability and fitness while enabling those leading the classes to develop and record their skills. Activities that mirror the workplace and develop workplace skills are particularly valuable, given the artificial nature of the prison regime. In two different establishments I learnt of a prisoner who was working towards personal trainer or fitness instructor qualifications delivering training to staff members, with reports that these arrangements also led to enhanced staff-prisoner relationships.


Good practice examples

Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre’s creative writing initiative is offered as part of their ‘sport project week competition’ with the sport element encouraging participation from some of the most difficult, violent and disengaged children who would otherwise be unlikely to engage but who can be encouraged to do so due to their interest in sports.

In a similar example of a prison-wide coordinated effort to use sport to motivate learners, staff from multiple departments at YOI Wetherby organised an establishment-wide Rio Olympics event which was fully imbedded in education as well as gym activities. Engagement with this event by both staff and children was good and the establishment report recording significantly fewer incidences of violence during the month that the event took place (according to recorded data held by the prison there were fewer instances of assaults on prisoners and on staff during the month of the event, with figures falling below the average for the year to date).


Although there is no doubt that a significant number of people in custody are capable of engaging in sports and fitness studies to Level 3 [2] (which is also the level of qualification typically required by employers in the sports and fitness industries), this is rarely seen. This mirrors Dame Sally Coates’ observation that only 0.1% of prison learners in 2014/15 were participating in Level 3 courses under a prison’s education contract, despite 20% of learners saying they would prefer to be studying at a higher level [3].

Prison learners who have been supported through distance learning to study at Level 3 and beyond in personal training, fitness and sports science are best prepared for entry to Higher Education, and - when coupled with the opportunity to gain direct experience of leading classes and gym inductions – entry to employment. 


Good practice example
Staff at HMP/YOI Parc ask those they work with to update them on their progress after their release or following movement to another prison. Delivering training to Level 3 is not common in prisons but there is evidence that in doing so HMP/YOI Parc the prison is preparing a significant number of learners for employment and/or further study. The staff handed me letters and testimonies received from a total of 26 individuals over the last 8 years who have gone on to work in the sports and fitness sectors, placement at community clubs and progression into Further and Higher Education.


Prisons are notorious for ‘silo working’, with different departments operating in isolation from one another. There is a risk that this isolated working can be further exacerbated when education services are contracted to external providers, which brings me to my next recommendation in Part 2 of this blog.
[1] Meek, R. Champion, N. & Klier, S. (2012). Fit for Release: How Sports-Based Learning Can Help Prisoners Engage in Education, Gain Employment and Desist from Crime. London: Prisoners Education Trust. 
[3] Coates, S. (2016). Unlocking Potential: A Review of Education in Prison. London: Ministry of Justice.



A photo of Professor Rosie Meek



Rosie Meek is a Professor of Psychology and founding Head of the Law School at Royal Holloway University of London, where her teaching and research expertise is in Criminal Justice and in particular, prisons. She also chairs the Research and Evidence Positive Action Group at the Alliance of Sport.







You may also be interested in:

Using sport to promote adult learning in our prisons, Part 2 (blog)

Cardiff City FC Community Foundation Prison Engagement Programmes (blog)

Mentoring in prison has given me courage (blog)

Prison Education: A Hard Cell, Part 1 (blog)

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