Opinion: sport can be effectively used to improve the mental health of prisoners and benefit their families and the wider community

By David Woods and Gavin Breslin, Ulster University

The mental health of the prison population is significantly poorer when compared with those not in prison. While many prisoners will have experienced adverse health determinants as childhood psychological abuse or neglect, poor educational attainment and high unemployment prior to incarceration, hostile prisons conditions can contribute to the lower levels of mental health. Environmental factors such as over-crowding, interpersonal distrust, bullying, marginalisation, stigmatisation and a lack of purposeful activity combine to reduce the mental health of prisoners and increase their risk of mental illness, suicide, self-harm, violence and victimisation.

In 2007, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that promoting mental health and well-being should be central to a prison's health care policy. This may come as a surprise to some, especially victims of crime, as traditional views of the purpose of a prison is for prisoners to serve time for their crime.

Perhaps though we should give the environment in prisons a second thought? This is a view expressed in the 2019 WHO report that highlighted ignoring the health of people in prisons comes at a high cost for society. These views expressed by the WHO reflect a renewed impetus that prisoner rehabilitation be central to the purpose of prison. For many prisoners, a successful release and reduction in recidivism will require positive re-entry into the community, with improved mental health a contributing factor in this.

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Although there are a multitude of key services and partnerships existing within prisons and the wider criminal justice system aimed at meeting the mental health of prisoners, many prisoners who stand to benefit from such services do not wish to engage with traditional mental health help-seeking treatment options. The reasons for this are many, but among the most common are fears of further stigmatisation. For males in particular, who make up 93% of global prison population, a perceived threat to their masculinity, perceived weakness and safety concerns are also major deterrents within a macho prison environment where survival is part of the prison culture.  

As a result, innovative means of positively impacting prisoner mental health are required and this is where sport with the addition of lifestyle management training can be used as a way of engaging prisoners. Access to sport and fitness facilities are judged to have strong potential to positively impact prisoners’ mental health with research consistently demonstrating that sport can offer a more acceptable means to engage prisoners in health and well-being promotion than a public health approach. Supporting this view, a 2018 review by the UK Ministry of Justice examined the role of sport within the criminal justice sector and recommended that sport provision is responsive to individual needs, with a focus on health, wellbeing and rehabilitation at the heart of prisoner support services.

How sport can be incorporated within prisons to positively impact mental health has received increased attention from judges, prison governors, researchers and policy makers. The benefits of increased physical activity in the prison gym are well documented and mirror those reported within the general population, such as increases in general physical fitness, self-esteem and confidence and reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress.

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Away from the prison gym, there are sport-based programmes available within prisons using football, rugby and Gaelic football which are augmented with parallel programmes to maximise personal lifestyle development objectives (skill development, career advice, educational training, self-care etc). The aim of these programmes, often referred to as "sport-plus", is to offer sporting experiences to prisoners to impact their mental health.

Research conducted within the Sport and Exercise Sciences Research Institute at Ulster University has identified a number of mechanisms through which benefits to mental health are realised by sport-based programmes in prison. These are often linked to improved relationships and an increased sense of achievement, alongside increased feelings of confidence and control over their activities and choices within prison.

These include:

(i) The development of social skills

This includes the forging of new or improved relationships between the prisoners themselves, but also between prisoners and prison staff, external programme facilitators and community members. The latter can be facilitated by community sports teams visiting the prison to compete against a prison team and be hosted by them after. 

(ii) Improved social abilities

These underpin greater self-belief for integration into communities upon release, due to relationships established through the programmes with visiting teams and programme facilitators.  

(iii) Opportunities for social mobility

This includes being able to join new sport clubs on release or even job opportunities within participating sporting organisations. These are key contributing factors to a renewed sense of purpose and associated improvements in mental health.

(iv) Recognition

Successful completion of these programmes provides an attractive environment in which awards and qualifications can be attained. Recognition, not just from those inside the prison, but also from family members invited to attend end of programme award ceremonies, is highly valued by prisoners. This provides a platform for prisoners to present a different side of themselves to meaningful others in their lives such as parents, spouse  and children, benefitting theirs and their families mental health.

Due to the operational complexities and sensitives within prisons regarding safety and security, there can be barriers experienced during the implementation of sport-based programmes. These may include insufficient staff resources or logistical difficulties with the inclusion of vulnerable prisoners, who may stand to benefit the most. However, with collaborative partnership approaches and programmes co-designed with prisoners, sport can be effectively used to improve the mental health of the prison population and in turn, benefit their families and the wider community of which they remain a part.

Dr David Woods is a Teaching Fellow in Sport & Exercise at the School of Sport at Ulster University. Dr Gavin Breslin is a Senior Lecturer in Sport & Exercise in the School of Sport and a researcher in the Sport and Exercise Sciences Research Institute at Ulster University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ