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Talking point: Can sport reduce crime?

Can physical activity be a catalyst for change in the criminal justice system?

Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 2
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue
A 2018 independent review looked at how sport and physical activity can reduce reoffending / © shutterstock/Massimiliano Ricciardolo
A 2018 independent review looked at how sport and physical activity can reduce reoffending/ © shutterstock/Massimiliano Ricciardolo

The Criminal Justice System (CJS) in the community (Probation Service) and in the custodial estate (Prison Service) supports approximately 500,000 people that have committed some form of crime across England and Wales. Many of these people will reoffend upon release.

Physical activity has long been shown to improve mental health and build self-esteem, resilience and self-discipline – all traits that can only benefit people within the CJS. Programmes can also provide role models and mentors, as well as promoting teamwork and helping participants to develop interpersonal skills.

In 2018, the government’s independent review into the role of sport in the justice system, led by Rosie Meek, looked at how sport and physical activity can assist rehabilitation and reduce reoffending. It also identified best practice from across the custodial estate and made recommendations for enhancing provision.

So just how much value can physical activity bring to the CJS? We asked several experts for their thoughts.

Jack Shakespeare Director of children and families, ukactive
Shakespeare says physical activity can prevent crime

Physical activity has a huge role to play in helping ex-offenders to get back on their feet and build positive lives free of crime.

Physical activity has the power to transform offenders’ outlook on life – it brings together disparate groups, develops communication skills and delivers improvements in physical and mental health.

Yet physical activity has the power to go much further than that. It has a vital role to play in addressing the very issues that lead to crime in the first place, particularly among younger people.

Physical activity offers new opportunities for disengaged young people – fostering social connections, delivering learning opportunities and exposing them to positive influences.

"Physical activity offers new opportunities for disengaged young people"

We have seen this impact directly in our work with City of Birmingham School – the largest Pupil Referral Unit in the country – led by head teacher Steve Howell. The school’s recent collaboration with Lawrence Dallaglio’s RugbyWorks charity saw rugby internationals deliver coaching to the pupils, with very positive results. The programme allows pupils to learn from positive role models, grow in confidence and develop their teamwork and communication skills, which they can then take into the classroom.

Partnerships such as this demonstrate the transformative impact physical activity can have on troubled young people and disadvantaged communities. That is why ukactive is calling on government to unlock school facilities over the summer holidays, bringing in physical activity experts to deliver safe, healthy and fun activities in the communities that need it most.

Lawrence Dallaglio’s RugbyWorks provides positive role models for disengaged young people
Rosie Meek Professor of psychology, School of Law at Royal Holloway University of London
Rosie Meek

Ihave long promoted the transformative effects of sport and physical activity in efforts to reduce violence and support desistance from crime, and much of my work has concentrated on one of the most critical settings in this regard: prisons and young offender institutions. This research journey started for me over 10 years ago when I evaluated a series of pioneering football and rugby initiatives for young men in prison.

I was so struck by the positive impact of these schemes and the ways in which sport had an enduring positive impact on these men, that I’ve devoted much of my subsequent research to this subject.

I was privileged to be invited by the Ministry of Justice to carry out an independent review of sport and physical activity in youth and adult prisons.

"I was struck by the ways in which sport had an enduring positive impact on young men in prison"

My review set out to explore the current and potential uses of sport in our prisons: it drew on widespread consultations and analyses of physical education and sport provision in prisons throughout England and Wales; it presented various good practice examples from across the secure estate; and the report culminated in 12 recommendations, 11 of which the government accepted.

I urged those with responsibility for our prisons to develop more effective partnerships in order to improve the delivery of physical activity and sports programmes for the individuals held in their care.

We know that sports-based programmes can improve physical and mental health, support educational achievements, and provide a direct route into employment and training. And these initiatives also often have a unique role to play in promoting engagement, building trust with professionals, instilling resilience, teamwork and communication skills, and ultimately offering hope and a positive alternative to offending for those who may not feel motivated by other types of prison programmes.

Justin Coleman Chief operations officer, Alliance of Sport
Justin Coleman is COO of the Alliance of Sport

Sport and physical activity, in and of itself, is not a panacea for the criminal justice system (CJS) or the participants within its care. A game of football or table tennis will not reduce the re-offending rate on its own – not least because the system is so complex and each participant’s background and needs are so vastly different.

However, sport has a set of intrinsic benefits that make it the ideal vehicle for rehabilitation when it is packaged together with support including mentoring, education and training that enables each participant to complete their journey towards a life free from crime.

Sport has a set of key components that make it such a useful tool for rehabilitating those caught up in the CJS:

Firstly, it is transferable and mobile for participants of all ages, both their physical and cognitive ability and in fitting in with wider aspects of their lives.

It enables personal control, choice and achievement, so participants can set personal goals and progress at a pace they are comfortable with.

Sport positively develops its participants’ physical and mental health and wellbeing and enables the development of emotional regulation, as well as that current buzzword – resilience.

"Sport is not a panacea, but it has a set of intrinsic benefits that make it the ideal vehicle for rehabilition"

Central to all, if delivered well, sport is a positive platform for prosocial, proactive relationships and purposeful social connection – which, in turn, can enable the process of positive lifelong behaviour change.

This is achievable when partners from across the sector come together in partnership, which is what the Sport for Development sector in the UK is all about.

When the sport and activity industry works with the third sector, public health, police (and Police & Crime Commissioners), schools, colleges, universities, criminal justice, community organisations, employment, housing and families, sustainable rehabilitation and desistance from crime can be achieved, helping repair broken lives and building a stronger society for all.

Prisoners at HM Prison Oakwood were given the chance to participate in a football programme with mentors
Chrissie Wellington Global head of health and wellbeing, parkrun
Chrissie Wellington

As with all successful interventions, we need to start off by listening to those that we wish to impact. In this case, prisoners and prison staff are at the frontline in terms of taking part in and delivering any activities. Their views must be taken into consideration at all stages of the planning and implementation process. So, too, should those who oversee the running of the secure estate, such as HMPPS; third sector organisations that have experience in this field, such as the NASDC, as well as individuals who are at the cutting edge of research, such as Professor Rosie Meeks. Together, these individuals and organisations can provide the insight, guidance and support necessary to create initiatives that are suitable, targeted and, most importantly, impactful and sustainable.

The evidence around the value of sport and physical activity in reducing reoffending and promoting rehabilitation is wide ranging and compelling. The same is true about the impact of parkrun on the holistic health and wellbeing of individuals and communities.

Based on demand from prisoners and prison staff, and buoyed by the credible evidence base, in 2017 parkrun UK took the bold and ground-breaking step of establishing 5km parkrun events on the secure estate. Black Combe parkrun at HMP Haverigg in Cumbria was activated in November that year, closely followed by HMP Magilligan in Northern Ireland. There are currently 15 parkruns on the secure estate, on both HMP and YOI sites, with many more in the pipeline. All are delivered by the prisoners themselves, with over 1,500 different people having run or walked at these events (as of mid-April 2019).

"Based on demand from prisoners and prison staff, parkrun UK established 5km events on the secure estate"

Establishing HMP or YOI parkruns sites provides regular physical activity and volunteering opportunities for those in secure settings (including staff); building hope and aspirations, recognising and celebrating people’s strengths and progress, promoting skill development and fostering agency and empowerment. The interaction between staff and prisoners, on a more level playing field, helps foster positive relationships built on trust and respect.

Any intervention should be informed by regular monitoring and evaluation and we are working closely with HMPPS, Professor Rosie Meek and Sheffield Hallam University to evaluate the implementation and impact of the initiative. This will help build insight into what works, and doesn’t, and why – to ensure that this project, and similar initiatives, are successful and sustainable in the long term.

Black Combe parkrun at HMP Haverigg in Cumbria was the first parkrun event in a prison. There are now 15 events across the country
The events also provide volunteering opportunities for prisoners

Justin Coleman, Chrissie Wellington and Rosie Meek discussed this issue as part of the Thought Leaders Conference at Elevate 2019.

Elevate 2020 will take place from 17-18 June 2020.

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