Photo from Sports Politicus USA.

There is a paradox to the idea of sport in prisons—namely, that institutions whose primary purpose is the restriction of human movement are home to vibrant physical cultures and diverse forms of physical activity. Despite the numerous sociological questions that arise from this peculiar phenomenon, to say nothing of widely-circulated pop culture tropes of tattooed and muscular (and usually male) convicts, there is relatively little research on the topic within the sociology of sport. Here, I reflect on a project I conducted on prison sport and physical culture in Canadian federal prisons, and discuss the significance of prison sport to the broader sociological study of sport.

Putting Canadian Prison Sport in Context

Over 10 million people are incarcerated around the globe, approximately one quarter of whom are in North America. The United States is, overwhelmingly, the world’s largest jailer, with over 2.2 million Americans living behind bars; Canada features much lower rates of incarceration, yet has recently moved toward harsher prison sentences that may swell the number of prisoners. In both countries, the criminal justice system is not neutral, and disproportionately incarcerates men (although the number of female inmates is rising) from economically disadvantaged and racialized backgrounds. In the US, this is reflected in the overwhelmingly high numbers of African American men in prisons, while in Canada, Indigenous Peoples make up between 20-25% of prisoners despite representing just 4% of the country’s total population.

I embarked on my project in the midst of a significant shift in Canadian corrections spearheaded by the Conservative Party, which held power from 2006-2015. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian government made a “tough-on-crime” agenda a central pillar of its domestic policies. This agenda included a shift in policy toward longer prison sentences, less opportunity to serve sentences in the community, harsher conditions of confinement, and reduced budgets for the operation of prisons. These policy changes were accompanied by shifts in public language that changed the focus of prisons from rehabilitation to punishment and framed non-essential prison programming—including sport and physical activity—as luxuries (despite the fact that the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners specifically identifies exercise and recreation as a right of prisoners).

These policy and language shifts had the effect of restricting the opportunities for some prisoners to engage in pleasurable physical recreation, and limiting discussions about the merits of prison sport to concerns about its contribution to individual self-transformation, without regard for structural causes of crime and incarceration. However, they were merely the latest manifestation of a trend of declining sport offerings and participation in Canadian prisons since the 1970s, due to a combination of factors, including:

  • declining inmate interest in sport as a recreational activity
  • budget and manpower cuts to recreation programs
  • lower levels of inmate solidarity in organizing activities
  • regular conservative critiques of prison sport and recreation “coddling” offenders.

Prior to this decline, beginning in the post-WW2 era, Canadian federal prisons featured a wide variety of recreational sport offerings; organized intermural softball leagues; representative inmate teams that competed in local baseball leagues and played outside teams within the prison walls; occasional sport festivals put on by inmates and attended by members of the community; and professional physical educators on staff at institutions. While the availability and organization of particular activities varied by prisons’ security levels and geographic location, there was nonetheless consistent engagement in sport and physical activity at institutions across the country. Today, many of these features of prison life have substantially declined or disappeared.

Photo from Business Insider.

Researching Prison Sport: Social Control, Agency, and Resistance

Although I attempted to gain access to research sport and physical culture inside two Canadian prisons, my request was denied by the federal department for corrections. As such, I adapted my project to utilize a wide range of tactics for gathering information on this subject, including: interviews with former prisoners and individuals involved in delivering prison programming; examination of government policy documents; and analysis of newsletters and memoirs written by prisoners.

In my research, I discovered that sport and physical culture play contradictory roles in Canadian prisons: on the one hand, they are mandated by policymakers and deployed by prison administrators in order to achieve particular outcomes in the inmate population, such as reduced aggression or vague rehabilitative goals; on the other, they provide sites at which prisoners can exercise a limited degree of agency over their day-to-day lives, often in ways that conflict with, or even resist, the reasons for their provision. In other words, there is a tension between sport as a means of social control over prisoners and as a vehicle for prisoners to express agency and resist some of the impositions placed upon them in confinement.

To analyze my findings, I used the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly his concept of the “total institution.” A total institution is an organization that is characterized by social and physical isolation from society, allowing the development of its own unique social world and subcultural roles and values. Using this framework, I examined how inmates used sport to contribute to a prison’s “underlife”—that is, a series of subcultural social practices through which inmates, according to Goffman, “decline in some way to accept the official view of what they should be putting into and getting out of the organization.” Through my research, I uncovered a variety of ways in which sport contributed to the underlife in Canadian prisons, including: repurposing exercise equipment to suit alternative needs, whether recreational or violent; using sport spaces, especially the “yard,” for illicit activities; using sport matches to engage in levels of violence that would otherwise not be tolerated by staff; and making creative use of spaces and furniture in cells to engage in yoga or fitness training when, as can occur frequently in many prisons, inmates are placed on lockdown and unable to leave their cells.

Many of these social practices are not desirable, at least from the perspective of prison staff or policymakers, and do little to contribute to prisoners’ likelihood of engaging in rehabilitation. Yet they arise from the interplay of institutional and structural restrictions, the “inmate code” that dominates the subculture of Canadian prisons, and the limited opportunities available in a total institution to engage in identity construction or collective social engagement. As such, the characteristics of Canadian prison physical culture are neither inevitable nor unchangeable, and examples exist in other prison systems of physical cultures that are more humane, less violent, and more empowering to prisoners. In other words, the structure and subculture into which prisoners are placed will largely dictate the form that sport and physical culture take in this environment.

Future Research

Prisons are major social institutions, and their physical cultures should be of great interest to researchers. Given the limited scholarship in this area, I conclude by suggesting a number of ways to deepen and broaden our knowledge of prison sport.

  • Comparative research on sport in prisons and in other total institutions will add nuance to our understanding of sport in these extreme social environments. Such sites could include refugee camps and juvenile detention centres, or even private boarding schools and high performance sport academies.
  • Understanding the significance of sport as a cultural practice that can temporarily permeate such total institutions, which by nature are closed off from the outside world. For example, I interviewed a number of individuals who deliver yoga programs in Canadian prisons, which facilitated contact between inmates and outsiders in an emotionally supportive environment. Similarly, a number of former prisoners spoke fondly of sport matches against community teams that would visit prisons and compete against inmate teams.
  • A deeper analysis of changes and continuities to prisoners’ involvement in sport when they are released. Former prisoners face a great deal of stigma and numerous other challenges when they are released, and these social barriers may disrupt their ability to continue their participation in meaningful physical activity.
  • Finally, I would argue that prisons should be of interest to scholars of Sport for Development and Peace, particularly given the tensions surrounding the social control of participants and the focus on sport’s potential social impact in marginalized or disadvantaged populations.

Mark Norman, PhD., is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, Canada. His doctoral research examined historical and contemporary meanings and experiences of Canadian prison physical culture. His postdoctoral project is focused on alternative forms of rehabilitation, most notably yoga and animal-assisted therapy. Email: