Monday, 23 February 2015

Book Review: Rosie Meek's Sport in Prison

Encyclopaedic knowledge of vast material and scrupulous concern for what might and might not be said vis-a-vis whether sport works and what constitutes working and how it might be measured.  However, it usefulness is severely reduced by the poverty of the index.

In this review I concentrate upon the conclusion and one particular chapter that fully discusses her work rather than that of others.  I may return to this book again and post further, or revised, reviews.  I have provided links where possible.  Do suggest more.

Round 1

For every boxer who claims that without the sport he would have ended in prison (for instance Luis Collazo) we might find lists of the ten best boxers who ended up in prison.  And yet we also have Prison Fight a charity which claims world connections but seems only to be Thai-based and uses Thai boxing as rehabilitation and holds out the possibility of amnesty; but to my untutored eye it looks exploitative.

Yet boxing rates only 3 mentions in Meek's book: one to note that in her survey boxing was the favoured activity for inmates though banned at the time (p109); that it had recently been approved for use with non-violent offenders (p33) and that it was now offered in a number of establishments (p28).

In ITV’s Bring Back Borstal the ‘boys’ play a game of Rugby Union against a local team and go on cross country runs - shades of the book and film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - but they do not box.  Several fights break out and a punch ball takes a hammering in Episode 3 to allow one young man to ‘let off some steam'.  In Meek’s mentions and more generally it is not clear whether boxing training - i.e. pad work, speed ball, skipping or running - is meant or more serious sparring or even a boxing match - with headguards and gumshields.  Organisations like Boxing Academy and Fight for Peace use ‘boxing training’.

The playing fields of Portland

But back to Rugby (the RFU) and Association Football (Chelsea) ; which are the subject of Chapter 8 and of her earlier work evaluating the Second Chance Project which with the two boxing projects mentioned above are amongst a number of sports projects further evaluated by Project Oracle. (Stereotypically one might assume an Australian interest in sport and their Institute of Criminology does not disappoint.  And in the UK New Philanthropy Capital has sought to evaluate some of these projects.)

In a piece of Reality TV/public criminology Sky showed Football Behind Bars in 2009 on this subject and at the same institution, HMYOI Portland.  I know full well the problems of such ventures (see ‘I’m Making a TV Programme Here!’ Can Reality TV’s Banged Up and Public Criminology? with Prof David Wilson) but am surprised she does not seem to mention the TV series.  It does receive a mention in the free standing evaluation of the report mentioned above and I know he attended the launch at Twickenham Stadium.

She mentions the controversial Thorn Cross High Intensity Training Centre and the ‘glasshouse’ experience offered by Colchester Military Corrective Training Centre which have some of the intensity which she talks of.  She notes the mixed success both had (Farrington et al).  Indeed much of what follows in the Chapter (as in the whole book) can be seen as falling under the ‘mixed success’ banner, from which might be intuited, ‘occasional or frequent failure’.  And Meek does not shy away form the difficulties of doing good evaluation and the consequent lack of a single good narrative to give to the media, Ministers or public.  However she frequently allows  some hope, for instance suggesting, that the Duke of Edinburgh Award ‘offer some promise’ citing evaluation by Dubberley and Parry.

Moving on to her work she describes the 4 academies over 2 years accepting 79 young men (46% White, 33% black and 21% mixed race, Asian or ‘other’.  On average they were just under 20 years old and the mean for offence category showed 40% were for violence against the person with a wide range from 24 to 63%.  Though self-selected they were ‘broadly representative of the national young adult population according to sentence category’ (p92).  Their Offender Group Reconviction Scale scores ranged widely from 10-85.  Of the 411 prisoners released from Portland in 2010 50% reoffended within one year against the national score of 53%.  And given all the appropriate proviso and health warnings does conclude, ‘this suggests that academy  participants are less likely to reoffend than those who haven’t participated in the academy’ (p94).

At point 5 in ‘Punditry’ blow I mention a table potential indicates of effectiveness.  In this chapter she adumbrates the ‘Intermediate measures of the impact of the sports initiative’ (p94) in the same spirit of more ways to evaluate the skin of act.  These are: Beliefs about Aggression (Farrell, Meyer and White, 2001); Use of non-Violent Strategies (Farrell et al, 2001); Self-esteem (Weinburger and Schwarz, 1990);  Self-concept (Phillips and Springer, 1992); Impulsivity (Bosworth and Espelage, 1995); Conflict Resolution, Impulsivity and Aggression Questionnaire (CRIAQ) (Honess, T., Maguire, M., & Vanstone, M. (2001) and Attitudes towards offending (CRIME PICS II).

As a qualitatively-orientated sociological criminologist I’ll merely advert to my queasiness about trying to put numbers on these matters but must ask the extent to which sportspeople have been subjected to the same tests?  Clearly some have been tested against wider populations.

A quick search of Google Scholar on the list ‘and athletes’ for 2015 reveals:

‘Beliefs about Aggression and athletes’ revealed 542  with doping and sexual violence prominent;

‘Use of non-Violent Strategies and Athletes’ produced only 38 results with Nigeria and Kenya apparently using sport against violence

‘Self-esteem and athletes’ found 673 with work on Obesity, Self-compassion and a meta analysis of the ‘Relationship between self-esteem and aggression amongst Chinese students’;

‘Self-concept and athletes’ returned 237 results with similar mix to ‘self-esteem’;

‘Impulsivity and athletes’ only returned 58 results but the top one, ‘Risk-taking and impulsive personality traits in proficient downhill sports enthusiasts’ by Maher et al, speaks to some of my concerns that sport and crime/deviance not something in a cause effect relationship but dialectically fused.

‘Conflict Resolution, Impulsivity and Aggression Questionnaire and athletes’ produces 58 results but seem mostly to pick up on the words ‘aggressive’ and ‘impulsivity’ but CRIAQ and athletes produced no results.  Clearly plenty of scope for work here.

Of the 270 results for ‘Attitudes towards offending and athletes’ top is one on ‘not-doping’ amongst sports people and the second about students attitudes to cheating!


From Chapter 14 Conclusion I take and discuss a number of points: 

1 “like music and art sport can be used as a ‘hook'" (p170).  She does not use the term 'bait' but acknowledges that a, ' direct research implication of the recognition of the varied uses and different effects of sport and physical activity across the secure estate is the need to make greater efforts to determine which types of sport are most effective in meeting specific aims ... (p179/180).

Note she does not say 'sports' but 'types of sport', so not rugby, soccer, badminton or tiddlywinks but say team versus individual and contact versus non-contact.  Given the class background  of the Borstal pioneers Rugby Union and cross country running might have been their ‘bait’ but soccer or boxing might make for a more attractive hook for inmates now.  She returns to this in her final conclusions, ‘research also needs to concentrate on establishing which sports are more or most useful in prison’.  She seems to mean to the authorities and not to the sports participants.

2 She is very clear that, 'sport in prison can and does offer numerous possibilities and opportunities but that there are also complexities associated with developing, implementing and evaluating sports-based programmes ...' (p171)

She fully understands that these cannot be a 'solution in themselves' (p171)  they must be 'a vehicle by which to implement social, psychological and physical change'.  I incline to the view that sport in prison, like art in prison like sport and art anywhere should be autotelic but see why some might seize on them as 'solutions'.  Indeed both PE/gym staff and sporting organisations (p181) have reason to make claims for the efficiency, effectiveness and economy (As a one-time Home office civil servant I cannot avoid the 'value for money' triple E.)  And she emphasises throughout, 'the importance of robust evaluation' (p178).

3 2 things I didn't know.

I admit I'd not heard of the Council of Europe's Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport or its designation of 2014 as the year of sport in prison (p171). And the internet offers little more information beyond some statements and conferences. Nor did I know of the Rugby Football Union's 'Prison to Pitch' initiative (p175) and there own website only offers a couple of stories about Rugby and Prisons.  But I do know my own club Saracens work with Feltham YOI with their Get Onside initiative. 

4 Turning specifically to the 'negative aspects of prison sport' (p180) she mentions, ‘narcissism, which is associated with anti-social characteristics such as low empathy (Watson & Morris, 1991), exploitativeness (Campbell, Bush, Brunell & Shelton, 2005) and aggressive reactions to threat (Bushman & Baumeister, 1998)’ as having potential for investigation.  Here, narcissism has a specific psychological meaning but its broader, but still psychologically inflected, meaning might have lead us in the direction of masculinities research into homosociality etc or the body, but gender (though women and girls the subject of chapter 5) and sexuality make no appearance in the index though Messerschmidt rates a bibliographic reference.  So no mention of Featherstone or Foucault on ‘the body’.

5 Fascinating in boiling down so much material is Table 14.1 (p182/3) on suggested indicators of effectiveness beyond reoffending with a bibliographic entry for each.  The 17 sections (many have subsections) range from ‘disruption in prison’ to ‘anxiety in sport’.  If only all Government policy were subject to such rigour.

It should be clear that I found this book very valuable and sparked many thoughts which it would be unfair to expect the book to answer all.  It is meticulous in use of academic material and Meek’s concern to track down so many papers and to air so many views is laudable.  It should be of particular interest beyond prison students and administrators to a wider sports world and to evaluators and policy makers.  It is psychology and evaluation heavy quite appropriately but as my comments suggest some sociology, philosophy and gender studies might have broadened its appeal.  However, the index is very poor; there are only 38 entries with multiple undifferentiated entries for the main sports.  This seriously reduces the value of the book to those looking for ‘answers’.

There is enough material in the book to support sport in prison but also to turn against it as 'not proven'.  However, those who would do that might consider the far more expansive and expensive claims made for the Olympics (see for example, the non-hyperbolic Levy and Berger, 2013) and not ask, 'Does sport (or art or faith etc) work?' but ask the autotelic question, 'Are they worth doing in their own right?.  Obviously the answer may still be, ‘no'.

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