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.

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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.

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Questions for monitors

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?

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