Outdoor exercise


The importance of outdoor exercise

Outdoor exercise is crucial for the mental and physical well-being of detainees, as part of a balanced regime of activities in prison. This is especially so, given that many prisoners spend most of their time indoors with limited access to natural light and fresh air. International standards specify that detainees should have at minimum one hour in the open air per day. This should provide the opportunity for exercise, relaxation, fresh air and to be exposed to sunlight. Time outside can also provide detainees with the chance to socialise and take part in recreational activities, or spend time alone if they wish.

Right for all categories of detainees to outdoor exercise

All detainees have the right to outdoor exercise. In practice, the level of access to outdoor exercise can vary greatly between different categories of detainees and those housed in different areas of the prison. This is sometimes due to the varying facilities available in different parts of the prison (e.g. certain wings or units, such as segregation units or prison hospitals units, may have smaller yards or no yard at all). Differences may also be justified on disciplinary or security grounds. For example, stricter regimes often apply to detainees in disciplinary units, high security detainees including those in so-called “supermax” prisons, and those serving life sentences, with limited or no time for outdoor exercise. The prison administration must, however, take measures to ensure that all detainees have access to the minimum of one hour outdoor exercise per day, including those under segregation or punishment. This is firstly an issue of sound prison management and properly trained staff. For example, staff may rotate to take a smaller number of detainees who are considered to require extra attention for security reasons to the yard in shifts.

Facilities for outdoor exercise

Outdoor areas, sometimes known as “prison yards” should be large enough for detainees to walk around and exercise, taking into account the number of detainees who will use them at one time. They should be genuinely outdoors, providing the opportunity for a “sunbath” (exposure to sunlight) and if possible in view of vegetation. They should also be fitted with facilities including a place for rest, shelter from inclement weather and some equipment for exercise (for example, an area for ball games). Detainees should be provided with adequate outdoor clothing when taking outdoor exercise.

In practice, prison yards in some countries are not suitable for genuine exercise and recreation: they may be too small, covered with a roof, oppressive in design (e.g. cage-like or resembling a “concrete box”), with no facilities or shelter, the latter acting as a disincentive for spending time outdoors in poor weather.

Safe environment for outdoor exercise

The prison administration should ensure a safe environment for outdoor exercise, so that detainees can move around freely and take part in genuine recreation. This means providing sufficient supervision of the prison yard during exercise times, including adequate numbers of staff and possible additional measures such as CCTV surveillance. Separating different categories of detainees during exercise time (e.g. pre-trial and sentenced detainees, hard and soft regime detainees) can also contribute to a safer environment. Female detainees should always be separated from male detainees, including during outdoor exercise and time in prison yards.


In practice, it is not uncommon that prison yards are places of risk and tension. They may be dominated by rivalries between different prison gangs, with detainees’ movements being closely watched and controlled by informal detainee hierarchies. They may be the scene of threats, or violent or humiliating attacks, especially towards the most vulnerable detainees, and sometimes with the involvement of prison staff. In some prisons, prison staff do not enter into prison yards at all, meaning that they are not able to ensure the safety of detainees during exercise time.


Corruption can seriously limit detainees’ access to basic rights in prison, including to outdoor exercise. In some prisons, every aspect of prison life requires the payment of a bribe (to informal detainee hierarchies and/or prison staff). Detainees who do not pay may not have access to outdoor exercise for lengthy periods (which can amount to ill-treatment). 

Groups in situations of vulnerability

Outdoor exercise is particularly important for children and young people in prison, as part of a balanced programme of activities which meets their welfare and developmental needs. Children and young people have the right to a suitable amount of outdoor exercise, and a minimum of one hour each day. In addition, international standards specify that physical and recreational training activities should be provided for children during this time. Adequate space, installations and equipment should be provided for these activities. 

The prison administration should ensure that all children and young people are physically able to participate in the available programmes. Remedial physical education and therapy should be offered, under medical supervision, to children and young people needing it. A positive practice in some prisons is that children and young people have unhindered access to outdoor areas throughout the day, with a schedule of activities provided.


Women have the same right to outdoor exercise as male detainees. In practice, the space available for women to exercise in the open air is often smaller than for male detainees, with poorer facilities, especially in mixed prisons. The areas and time for outdoor exercise should be organised so that women are not required to take outdoor exercise with male detainees.  


Persons with disabilities have the same right to outdoor exercise as other detainees. The prison authorities should take measures to ensure that persons with physical disabilities whose mobility is impaired can access areas for outdoor exercise. Efforts should be made to ensure that detainees with disabilities can participate in recreational activities during outdoor exercise time.

LGBTI detainees are at particular risk of bullying and violence during exercise time in prisons. The prison administration should take adequate measures to ensure their safety, including that there are no “blind spots” (areas that are not supervised) in the prison yard.