Recreational activities

Key elements

All detention facilities should make available to inmates a programme of recreational activities to maintain or improve their overall well-being.

Primarily recreational activities should be distinct from prison work or vocational training and involve sports or socio-cultural pursuits. They should be conducted during hours separate from the time devoted to training and sports activities, and not in place of them.

Places of detention should provide personnel and appropriate installations and premises to organise and conduct recreational activities.

All detainees should have the opportunity to participate in recreational activities if they so wish, irrespective of their gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation or physical or mental condition.

Analysis

Objectives of recreational activities

Recreational activities are generally not considered a priority in places of detention but nevertheless fulfil important roles:

  1. First of all they enable detainees to spend less time locked in their cells, which is particularly important for people in individual cells who do not engage in prison work during their incarceration.
  2. Recreational activities also aim to structure the days of detainees and reduce the tensions inherent in the deprivation of liberty by occupying them constructively and reducing the risk they face of developing symptoms of depression. Apart from having an occupational function, recreational activities also serve to improve the physical and mental well-being of detainees.
  3. Finally, recreational activities should be an integral part of the prison regime as they can also contribute to detainee reintegration. These activities are often conducted in groups and can therefore play a positive role in the socialisation of detainees and also foster their contacts with civil society (whenever activities are organised with external partners). In addition, by granting detainees the opportunity to propose and participate in the organisation of specific events and activities in prison they are encouraged to take on responsibility and show initiative. In order for these activities to effectively contribute towards reinsertion, detainees should be encouraged rather than compelled to participate in them.

Types of recreational activity

Sports activities contribute towards the physical well-being of detainees. They also reduce levels of stress and tension among detainees and help to maintain or improve their mental health. Team sports promote social contact and should also be encouraged.
Sports activities should be organised in addition to and outside the time periods allocated for daily outdoor exercise and can be assured by enabling regular access to a gym or the practice of a team sport in premises dedicated for this purpose, including outdoors. However, recreation offered in prisons should not be limited to sports activities.

It is recommended that prisons also offer social and cultural activities; these can take various forms such as writing workshops, regular film projections, theatre or music performances or classes, as well as artisanal and visual arts creation. Many institutions also have a library, offering detainees the possibility to develop or acquire new knowledge. Libraries are therefore both recreational and educational. However, prison libraries are usually not open in the evening or during weekends, limiting access to them. Prison libraries should contain books in the languages most commonly spoken by the detainees.

Organisation and infrastructure

Recreational activities can be organised in different ways: a detention facility may offer various regular basic activities (e.g., access to the gym, music lessons etc.), as well as special events and activities such as football tournaments, concerts or theatre performances within the institution.

To enable all detainees to participate in them, recreational activities should take place at different times from those allocated for daily outdoor exercise. Similarly, detainees who work or follow training courses in prison should also, to the extent possible, be able to participate in recreational activities in addition to these undertakings.

Institutions should possess sufficiently spacious premises to enable group activities to take place. However, while suitable premises for certain activities may be available, other more specific activities such as artistic pursuits or performances may require greater organisation in terms of premises, equipment and management staff.

Animation of activities

Penitentiary facility staff (prison officers, social workers, etc.) may suffice to supervise certain activities such as sports pursuits, but others require the presence of paid or volunteer external personnel with specific qualifications (e.g. for visual arts or yoga courses). Collaboration with external stakeholders also enables specific activities ─ in addition to the regular activities ─ to take place. However, even without the contribution of civil society, prison authorities should strive to provide detainees with the widest range of activities possible.

Access to activities

Equitable access to recreation must prevail and detainees should be informed of the activities proposed in the institution upon their arrival. In practice, the number of places to participate in these activities is often limited. To avoid discrimination, participation selection should be transparent and based on objective criteria. In prisons with a strong informal hierarchy there is a risk that those at the top decide who has access to certain services / activities (including the gym) ─ at the expense of others.

It is particularly important to ensure that detainees serving long sentences are given the opportunity to participate in activities that are as varied as possible since they are more likely to suffer from the adverse effects of being deprived of their liberty.

Persons remanded in custody should also have access to recreational activities. Given that they are generally deprived of the opportunity to work while in custody, it is particularly important that they are able to participate in diverse activities in order to structure and occupy their time.

Recreational activities are especially important for minors, primarily in order to respond to their development needs. These activities should be constructive, diverse and take place in groups to encourage maximum interaction with other children as a means of developing their social integration. Likewise, young adults require special attention and should be offered activities that respond to their need for physical activity and that are also intellectually stimulating. Furthermore, if the activities offered need to be adapted, qualified staff trained specifically to work with children and young adults should be provided.

Women often have access to a much more limited range of activities than men since they are less numerous and are usually held in smaller and less well equipped quarters. It is essential that institutions holding female detainees ensure that the recreational activities offered to them are as diverse and constructive as those available to male detainees. They should not have access solely to stereotypical activities such as sewing and embroidery to avoid reinforcing a stigmatising vision of the role of women. The situation is often particularly problematic ─ and discriminatory ─ for girls deprived of their liberty.

Foreign detainees are sometimes disadvantaged regarding access to the recreational activities offered in prison. Although it is not always possible to provide recreation for everyone (e.g., a creative writing workshop, where knowledge of the local language is often required), it is important to take into consideration the situation of foreign detainees to ensure they are not discriminated against in access to recreational activities.

Detainees from minorities or indigenous populations also face inequalities of access to recreational activities. To the extent possible, they should therefore be offered activities that correspond to their culture and customs. Moreover, language should not be an obstacle to participation in recreational activities.

Persons with physical or mental disabilities should not be discriminated against in access to recreational activities. Recreational activities should therefore be appropriately adapted for these inmates in terms of infrastructure and content. Persons with disabilities may find themselves particularly isolated in detention and should therefore be especially encouraged to participate in recreational activities (bearing in mind that their participation should remain voluntary).

LGBTI detainees should have equitable access to recreational activities. The practice of deliberately excluding LGBTI detainees from recreational activities for security reasons or due to discrimination should not be tolerated. LGBTI people should not however be obliged to participate in recreational activities against their will.

Legal standards (12)

Questions for monitors (18)

Do the detainees have access to recreational activities? If so, how often?

What sports activities are proposed?

What socio-cultural activities are proposed?

Are recreational activities ─ especially sports activities ─ proposed in addition to the daily outdoor exercise periods?

What arrangements are made to ensure that all detainees (including those who work or follow training courses) have access to recreational activities?

Does the institution have dedicated facilities for sports activities? In what condition are these premises? How are they equipped?

Does the institution have dedicated facilities for socio-cultural activities? In what condition are these premises? Are these premises sufficiently spacious and suitably equipped?

Who is responsible for the animation and supervision of proposed recreational activities? Are partnerships with civil society organised?

Is the number of places for recreational activities limited? Who decides which detainees have access to them? What is the selection criteria?

Are there any indications that access is denied to recreational activities on a discriminatory basis?

To what types of recreational activity do detainees serving long sentences have access?

Do persons remanded in custody have access to recreational activities?

Are detained children and young adults offered constructive activities that meet their development needs?

Do detained women and girls have access to the same recreational activities as those offered to male inmates?

Are the proposed activities appropriate for foreign detainees (especially with regard to the language utilised)?

Are the activities appropriate for people from minorities? What types of activity are offered to them?

Do persons with physical or mental disabilities have the opportunity to participate in recreational activities? If So, which ones?

Are LGBTI persons discriminated against in access to recreational activities?

Further reading (2)

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Recreational activities

Key elements

All detention facilities should make available to inmates a programme of recreational activities to maintain or improve their overall well-being.

Primarily recreational activities should be distinct from prison work or vocational training and involve sports or socio-cultural pursuits. They should be conducted during hours separate from the time devoted to training and sports activities, and not in place of them.

Places of detention should provide personnel and appropriate installations and premises to organise and conduct recreational activities.

All detainees should have the opportunity to participate in recreational activities if they so wish, irrespective of their gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation or physical or mental condition.

Analysis Print

Objectives of recreational activities

Recreational activities are generally not considered a priority in places of detention but nevertheless fulfil important roles:

  1. First of all they enable detainees to spend less time locked in their cells, which is particularly important for people in individual cells who do not engage in prison work during their incarceration.
  2. Recreational activities also aim to structure the days of detainees and reduce the tensions inherent in the deprivation of liberty by occupying them constructively and reducing the risk they face of developing symptoms of depression. Apart from having an occupational function, recreational activities also serve to improve the physical and mental well-being of detainees.
  3. Finally, recreational activities should be an integral part of the prison regime as they can also contribute to detainee reintegration. These activities are often conducted in groups and can therefore play a positive role in the socialisation of detainees and also foster their contacts with civil society (whenever activities are organised with external partners). In addition, by granting detainees the opportunity to propose and participate in the organisation of specific events and activities in prison they are encouraged to take on responsibility and show initiative. In order for these activities to effectively contribute towards reinsertion, detainees should be encouraged rather than compelled to participate in them.

Types of recreational activity

Sports activities contribute towards the physical well-being of detainees. They also reduce levels of stress and tension among detainees and help to maintain or improve their mental health. Team sports promote social contact and should also be encouraged.
Sports activities should be organised in addition to and outside the time periods allocated for daily outdoor exercise and can be assured by enabling regular access to a gym or the practice of a team sport in premises dedicated for this purpose, including outdoors. However, recreation offered in prisons should not be limited to sports activities.

It is recommended that prisons also offer social and cultural activities; these can take various forms such as writing workshops, regular film projections, theatre or music performances or classes, as well as artisanal and visual arts creation. Many institutions also have a library, offering detainees the possibility to develop or acquire new knowledge. Libraries are therefore both recreational and educational. However, prison libraries are usually not open in the evening or during weekends, limiting access to them. Prison libraries should contain books in the languages most commonly spoken by the detainees.

Organisation and infrastructure

Recreational activities can be organised in different ways: a detention facility may offer various regular basic activities (e.g., access to the gym, music lessons etc.), as well as special events and activities such as football tournaments, concerts or theatre performances within the institution.

To enable all detainees to participate in them, recreational activities should take place at different times from those allocated for daily outdoor exercise. Similarly, detainees who work or follow training courses in prison should also, to the extent possible, be able to participate in recreational activities in addition to these undertakings.

Institutions should possess sufficiently spacious premises to enable group activities to take place. However, while suitable premises for certain activities may be available, other more specific activities such as artistic pursuits or performances may require greater organisation in terms of premises, equipment and management staff.

Animation of activities

Penitentiary facility staff (prison officers, social workers, etc.) may suffice to supervise certain activities such as sports pursuits, but others require the presence of paid or volunteer external personnel with specific qualifications (e.g. for visual arts or yoga courses). Collaboration with external stakeholders also enables specific activities ─ in addition to the regular activities ─ to take place. However, even without the contribution of civil society, prison authorities should strive to provide detainees with the widest range of activities possible.

Access to activities

Equitable access to recreation must prevail and detainees should be informed of the activities proposed in the institution upon their arrival. In practice, the number of places to participate in these activities is often limited. To avoid discrimination, participation selection should be transparent and based on objective criteria. In prisons with a strong informal hierarchy there is a risk that those at the top decide who has access to certain services / activities (including the gym) ─ at the expense of others.

It is particularly important to ensure that detainees serving long sentences are given the opportunity to participate in activities that are as varied as possible since they are more likely to suffer from the adverse effects of being deprived of their liberty.

Persons remanded in custody should also have access to recreational activities. Given that they are generally deprived of the opportunity to work while in custody, it is particularly important that they are able to participate in diverse activities in order to structure and occupy their time.

Recreational activities are especially important for minors, primarily in order to respond to their development needs. These activities should be constructive, diverse and take place in groups to encourage maximum interaction with other children as a means of developing their social integration. Likewise, young adults require special attention and should be offered activities that respond to their need for physical activity and that are also intellectually stimulating. Furthermore, if the activities offered need to be adapted, qualified staff trained specifically to work with children and young adults should be provided.

Women often have access to a much more limited range of activities than men since they are less numerous and are usually held in smaller and less well equipped quarters. It is essential that institutions holding female detainees ensure that the recreational activities offered to them are as diverse and constructive as those available to male detainees. They should not have access solely to stereotypical activities such as sewing and embroidery to avoid reinforcing a stigmatising vision of the role of women. The situation is often particularly problematic ─ and discriminatory ─ for girls deprived of their liberty.

Foreign detainees are sometimes disadvantaged regarding access to the recreational activities offered in prison. Although it is not always possible to provide recreation for everyone (e.g., a creative writing workshop, where knowledge of the local language is often required), it is important to take into consideration the situation of foreign detainees to ensure they are not discriminated against in access to recreational activities.

Detainees from minorities or indigenous populations also face inequalities of access to recreational activities. To the extent possible, they should therefore be offered activities that correspond to their culture and customs. Moreover, language should not be an obstacle to participation in recreational activities.

Persons with physical or mental disabilities should not be discriminated against in access to recreational activities. Recreational activities should therefore be appropriately adapted for these inmates in terms of infrastructure and content. Persons with disabilities may find themselves particularly isolated in detention and should therefore be especially encouraged to participate in recreational activities (bearing in mind that their participation should remain voluntary).

LGBTI detainees should have equitable access to recreational activities. The practice of deliberately excluding LGBTI detainees from recreational activities for security reasons or due to discrimination should not be tolerated. LGBTI people should not however be obliged to participate in recreational activities against their will.

Legal standards (12) Print

United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules)

Rule 4

1. The purposes of a sentence of imprisonment or similar measures deprivative of a person’s liberty are primarily to protect society against crime and to reduce recidivism. Those purposes can be achieved only if the period of imprisonment is used to ensure, so far as possible, the reintegration of such persons into society upon release so that they can lead a law-abiding and self-supporting life.

2. To this end, prison administrations and other competent authorities should offer education, vocational training and work, as well as other forms of assistance that are appropriate and available, including those of a remedial, moral, spiritual, social and health- and sports-based nature. All such programmes, activities and services should be delivered in line with the individual treatment needs of prisoners.

Rule 105

Recreational and cultural activities shall be provided in all prisons for the benefit of the mental and physical health of prisoners.

United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty

Rule 47

Every juvenile should have the right to a suitable amount of time for daily free exercise, in the open air whenever weather permits, during which time appropriate recreational and physical training should normally be provided. Adequate space, installations and equipment should be provided for these activities.  Every juvenile should have additional time for daily leisure activities, part of which should be devoted, if the juvenile so wishes, to arts and crafts skill development.  The detention facility should ensure that each juvenile is physically able to participate in the available programmes of physical education. Remedial physical education and therapy should be offered, under medical supervision, to juveniles needing it.

United Nations Committee on the Right of the Child,General comment No. 17 (2013) on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31), CRC/C/GC/17, 17 April 2013

Paragrap 51

Children in institutions: Many children spend all or part of their childhood in institutions, including, inter alia, residential homes and schools, hospitals, detention centres, remand homes and refugee centres, where opportunities for play, recreation and participation in cultural and artistic life may be limited or denied. The Committee stresses the need for States to work towards the de-institutionalization of children; but until that goal is reached, States should adopt measures to ensure that all such institutions guarantee both spaces and opportunities for children to associate with their peers in the community, to play and to participate in games, physical exercise, cultural and artistic life. Such measures should not be restricted to compulsory or organized activities; safe and stimulating environments are needed for children to engage in free play and recreation. Wherever possible, children should be afforded these opportunities within local communities. Children living in institutions for significant periods of time also require appropriate literature, periodicals and access to the Internet, as well as support to enable them to make use of such resources. Availability of time, appropriate space, adequate resources and equipment, trained and motivated staff and provision of dedicated budgets are needed to create the necessary environments to ensure that every child living in an institution can realize his or her rights under article 31.

European Prison Rules

Rule 25.1

The regime provided for all prisoners shall offer a balanced programme of activities.

Rule 27.3

Properly organised activities to promote physical fitness and provide for adequate exercise and recreational opportunities shall form an integral part of prison regimes.

Rule 27.4

Prison authorities shall facilitate such activities by providing appropriate installations and equipment.

Rule 27.5

Prison authorities shall make arrangements to organise special activities for those prisoners who need them.

Rule 27.6

Recreational opportunities, which include sport, games, cultural activities, hobbies and other leisure pursuits, shall be provided and, as far as possible, prisoners shall be allowed to organise them.

Rule 27.7

Prisoners shall be allowed to associate with each other during exercise and in order to take part in recreational activities.

Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas

Principle XIII - Education and cultural activities

Persons deprived of liberty shall have the right to take part in cultural, sporting, and social activities, and shall have opportunities for healthy and constructive recreation. Member States shall encourage the participation of the family, the community, and non-governmental organizations in these activities, in order to promote the reform, social readaptation, and rehabilitation of persons deprived of liberty.

Detention guidelines: guidelines on the applicable criteria and standards relating to the detention of asylum-seekers and alternatives to detention

Guideline 8. 48

If detained, asylum-seekers are entitled to the following minimum conditions of detention:

(viii) The opportunity to conduct some form of physical exercise through daily indoor and outdoor recreational activities needs to be available; as well as access to suitable outside space, including fresh air and natural light. Activities tailored to women and children, and which take account of cultural factors, are also needed.

Extract from the 2nd General Report [CPT/Inf (92) 3] - Imprisonment

Paragraphe 47

A satisfactory programme of activities (work, education, sport, etc.) is of crucial importance for the well-being of prisoners. This holds true for all establishments, whether for sentenced prisoners or those awaiting trial. The CPT has observed that activities in many remand prisons are extremely limited. The organisation of regime activities in such establishments - which have a fairly rapid turnover of inmates - is not a straightforward matter. Clearly, there can be no question of individualised treatment programmes of the sort which might be aspired to in an establishment for sentenced prisoners. However, prisoners cannot simply be left to languish for weeks, possibly months, locked up in their cells, and this regardless of how good material conditions might be within the cells. The CPT considers that one should aim at ensuring that prisoners in remand establishments are able to spend a reasonable part of the day (8 hours or more) outside their cells, engaged in purposeful activity of a varied nature. Of course, regimes in establishments for sentenced prisoners should be even more favourable.

Extract from the 11th General Report [CPT/Inf (2001) 16]

Paragraphe 33

The prisoners concerned should have access to a wide range of purposeful activities of a varied nature (work, preferably with vocational value; education; sport; recreation/association). Moreover, they should be able to exercise a degree of choice over the manner in which their time is spent, thus fostering a sense of autonomy and personal responsibility. Additional steps should be taken to lend meaning to their period of imprisonment; in particular, the provision of individualised custody plans and appropriate psycho-social support are important elements in assisting such prisoners to come to terms with their period of incarceration and, when the time comes, to prepare for release. Further, the negative effects of institutionalisation upon prisoners serving long sentences will be less pronounced, and they will be better equipped for release, if they are able effectively to maintain contact with the outside world.

Extract from the 19th General Report [CPT/Inf (2009) 27]

Paragraphe 79

Conditions of detention for irregular migrants should reflect the nature of their deprivation of liberty, with limited restrictions in place and a varied regime of activities. For example, detained irregular migrants should have every opportunity to remain in meaningful contact with the outside world (including frequent opportunities to make telephone calls and receive visits) and should be restricted in their freedom of movement within the detention facility as little as possible. Even when conditions of detention in prisons meet these requirements – and this is certainly not always the case – the CPT considers the detention of irregular migrants in a prison environment to be fundamentally flawed, for the reasons indicated above.

Paragraphe 99

Steps should be taken to ensure a regular presence of, and individual contact with, a social worker and a psychologist in establishments holding children in detention. Mixed-gender staffing is another safeguard against ill-treatment; the presence of both male and female staff can have a beneficial effect in terms of the custodial ethos and foster a degree of normality in a place of detention. Children deprived of their liberty should also be offered a range of constructive activities (with particular emphasis on enabling a child to continue his or her education).

Extract from the 9th General Report [CPT/Inf (99) 12]

Paragraphe 31

Although a lack of purposeful activity is detrimental for any prisoner, it is especially harmful for juveniles, who have a particular need for physical activity and intellectual stimulation. Juveniles deprived of their liberty should be offered a full programme of education, sport, vocational training, recreation and other purposeful activities. Physical education should constitute an important part of that programme.

It is particularly important that girls and young women deprived of their liberty should enjoy access to such activities on an equal footing with their male counterparts. All too often, the CPT has encountered female juveniles being offered activities which have been stereotyped as "appropriate" for them (such as sewing or handicrafts), whilst male juveniles are offered training of a far more vocational nature. In this respect, the CPT wishes to express its approval of the principle set forth in Rule 26.4 of the Beijing Rules, to the effect that every effort must be made to ensure that female juveniles deprived of their liberty "by no means receive less care, protection, assistance, treatment and training than young male offenders. Their fair treatment shall be ensured."

Extract from the 10th General Report [CPT/Inf (2000) 13]

Paragraphe 25

Women deprived of their liberty should enjoy access to meaningful activities (work, training, education, sport etc.) on an equal footing with their male counterparts. As the Committee mentioned in its last General Report, CPT delegations all too often encounter women inmates being offered activities which have been deemed "appropriate" for them (such as sewing or handicrafts), whilst male prisoners are offered training of a far more vocational nature.

In the view of the CPT, such a discriminatory approach can only serve to reinforce outmoded stereotypes of the social role of women. Moreover, depending upon the circumstances, denying women equal access to regime activities could be qualified as degrading treatment.

Guidelines on the Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody and Pre-Trial Detention in Africa

28. Recreational, vocational and rehabilitation services

States shall ensure that persons in police custody and pre-trial detainees have access to adequate recreational, vocational, rehabilitation and treatment services.

Questions for monitors (18) Print

Do the detainees have access to recreational activities? If so, how often?

What sports activities are proposed?

What socio-cultural activities are proposed?

Are recreational activities ─ especially sports activities ─ proposed in addition to the daily outdoor exercise periods?

What arrangements are made to ensure that all detainees (including those who work or follow training courses) have access to recreational activities?

Does the institution have dedicated facilities for sports activities? In what condition are these premises? How are they equipped?

Does the institution have dedicated facilities for socio-cultural activities? In what condition are these premises? Are these premises sufficiently spacious and suitably equipped?

Who is responsible for the animation and supervision of proposed recreational activities? Are partnerships with civil society organised?

Is the number of places for recreational activities limited? Who decides which detainees have access to them? What is the selection criteria?

Are there any indications that access is denied to recreational activities on a discriminatory basis?

To what types of recreational activity do detainees serving long sentences have access?

Do persons remanded in custody have access to recreational activities?

Are detained children and young adults offered constructive activities that meet their development needs?

Do detained women and girls have access to the same recreational activities as those offered to male inmates?

Are the proposed activities appropriate for foreign detainees (especially with regard to the language utilised)?

Are the activities appropriate for people from minorities? What types of activity are offered to them?

Do persons with physical or mental disabilities have the opportunity to participate in recreational activities? If So, which ones?

Are LGBTI persons discriminated against in access to recreational activities?