Just one of the more short-sighted prison policies implemented recently by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has been the severe reduction in access to prison gyms for prisoners. Of course, this is largely an ideological move instigated by Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, a politician who never misses an opportunity to make a fist of things in the UK criminal justice system.
The first question to address is why prisons have gyms. The main reason is to try to maintain prisoners’ health and fitness, both physical and mental; the second is to provide vocational education courses. A subsidiary function is to offer a perk to members of the prison staff who want to keep fit when they are off duty or during lunch breaks, but the less said about that the better.
The negative impact on inmates of long periods of confinement has been well documented. Even the Prison Rules (1999) set down that all prisoners should have the opportunity to take at least an hour of exercise in the open air each day, “weather permitting”.
None of this is new-fangled liberalism. Even Victorian prisons provided for prisoners to have daily exercise – albeit trudging in silence around the yard – and it also forms part of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners agreed by UN member states, including the UK, back in 1957.
Every prison I’ve been in has a contingent of avid gym bunnies. Lads who don’t have much control over anything else in their lives can at least take some responsibility for their own health. Many do aim to build up impressive physiques, some naturally, others using contraband steroids. It’s both part of the macho culture on prison wings – bigger always being regarded as better – as well as a practical way to let off steam and forget for an hour or so the frustrations of incarceration. A natural endorphin fix during exercise can also help manage depression and improve well-being.
The gym environment can provide opportunities for more mature, experienced cons to offer some coaching and mentoring to younger lads who lack positive male role models in their lives. Outsiders might be surprised just how much this contributes to their all-round development as adults.
Many prisons also make use of gym sessions to provide educational qualifications for prisoners (coaching or gym instructors’ certificates), as well as supervised remedial sessions for cons recovering from injury or medical treatment who have been referred by healthcare. Most of these inmates use these facilities because they can’t access NHS physiotherapy treatment in the community.
Given the rising population of older prisoners over 60, some nicks also offer special ‘Wellman’ gym sessions for older men as part of weight and blood-pressure management programmes, thus helping manage diabetes and other potentially serious health conditions. Gym access is also often provided for inmates who have signed up for alcohol or drugs treatment programmes as part of an integrated approach to managing addictions.
|Older prisoners keep fit|
Often it’s the prison gym staff who deliver the mandatory health and safety briefings to newly arrived cons, as well as offering voluntary First Aid courses and qualifications. Supervised team sports – mainly football, but also including basketball, volleyball or squash – also help to develop cooperation between inmates and can play a role in building up peer support. Overall, you might conclude that gym sessions in prisons would be seen as a positive activity offering a wide range of benefits.
Sadly, this is not a view shared by the tabloid media whose hacks have thumped the empty populist tub of cracking down on ‘luxury lifestyles’ supposedly being lived by cons in the nick. By misrepresenting gym use in prisons, the Daily Mail and its fellow travellers have spooked the British government into cracking down on access to gym facilities. The most recent example is the new rules set down in the revised Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system (PSI 30/2013) which came into force on 1 November 2013 and has restricted gym privileges across the prison estate.
Other factors have been mainly economic. According to published government figures, between 2007 and 2011, a total of £10.5 million was spent on sports and gym equipment for prisons. However, like all other budgets, those for prison gyms have been slashed or eliminated entirely. MOJ figures show that the bill was reduced from £2.5 million in 2009-10 to £1.4 million in 2011-12, mainly through purchasing second-hand or refurbished equipment. Back in 2013, it was estimated that this had amounted to £98 per con, although how that figure was calculated wasn’t entirely clear.
|Getting a healthy endorphin fix|
What can be seen, however, is the impact on gym facilities. Most broken exercise equipment isn’t being replaced or repaired professionally these days, so the average prison gym bears little resemblance to a commercial operation on the outside. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good now. Prison maintenance teams do make an effort to fix what can be salvaged, but with thousands of men having used the machines and weights over the years, some items are beyond fixing, or are simply unsafe to use.
Gym screws are also a species under threat. Some of them are ex-armed forces Physical Training Instructors (PTIs), although they also get called on to cover for regular wing staff during training days or when prisons are under-staffed. When there are no qualified gym screws available, the gyms in closed prisons remain shut, while in D-cats (open prisons) often the only items of equipment available to use without supervision are the CV machines.
|Borstal: exercise to exhaust young cons|
So what impacts does all this have on prisoners? As screws have long recognised, inmates who are exhausted from strenuous sessions in the gym are much more likely to be quiet and compliant – assuming they aren’t on illegal steroids, of course. By and large, tiring out the younger lads who are full of pent-up energy and testosterone is a sensible policy. Boarding schools have long focused on timetabling plenty of team sports, cross-country runs and physical education as a means of reducing their charges’ energy levels and, hopefully, their capacity for getting bored and making mischief. Old-style Borstals used to do the same, so surely these tried and tested methods would serve the Prison Service just as well?
|Empty gyms: Grayling's legacy|
Unfortunately, Team Grayling’s lack of competence in actually running prisons, coupled with a desire to score cheap political points in the tabloid media, has led to a failure to understand why regular access to gyms and physical education for prisoners could play a significant role in keeping the lid on the boiling pressure cookers that are the UK’s prisons today. Despite Mr Grayling’s recent denials, the prison system really is in crisis and worse is probably to come.
Overcrowding in many prisons and shortages of frontline staff have resulted in many more inmates spending much of each day locked behind their cell doors. In many establishments there just aren’t enough work, education or training opportunities to get cons out of their cells during the core day. Frustrations are building up. Burning off some of that negative energy in the gym or on the football field might seem to be a very sensible way of managing potentially restive prison populations.
It is a sad indictment of NOMS’ current leadership that it slavishly endorses policies that past experience suggests will do nothing to reduce frustrations, violence and disorder on prison wings. To be honest, it often seems that ‘Crisis Chris’ and his cronies actually want to provoke serious riots in our jails. Let’s see how long it will now take before there is some real trouble behind bars.