How physical wellness contributes to the rehabilitation of former felons
The physical health benefits of sports and exercise are widely known: from managing one’s weight and strengthening muscles to reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. But the mental health and social benefits have recently come to the fore: from boosting your mood and concentration, to fighting off dementia and addictions, to improving leadership and decision-making skills.
During a 14-month lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin, many incarcerated people suffered under the ill effects of mental stress, infection by the novel virus, and a lack of exercise. The lockdown meant being confined to a four-by-ten-foot cell for nearly 24 hours per day. During a 90-minute release that occurred every other day, incarcerated people had to choose: should I spend that limited time showering, using the pay phones, or getting exercise on the yard?
A criminology study by a group of Polish researchers titled, The Rehabilitation Function Of Sport In A Psychological Context (2019) concluded that, “prisoners who were actively involved in sports had higher levels of emotional stability and extroversion [sociability] compared to those who did not.” Emotional stability is considered especially desirable as an outcome of social rehabilitation, stated the researchers.
Sports calm the mind and help moderate stress. Anywhere from 75% to 90% of doctor visits are for stress-related illnesses, according to 6 Mental Health Benefits of Playing Sports, an article by Taylor Bennett (2017). Participation in sports can also have long-term mental health benefits. Children that suffered traumatic experiences, such as physical and sexual abuse, or emotional neglect had better mental well-being when
they were adults if they had played team sports, according to researchers, reported Bennett.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) offers Rehabilitation Achievement Credits (RACs) to prisoners for participation in self-help groups and classes by which they can earn time off their sentences or an earlier trip to the parole board. Currently, that doesn’t include sports, despite their positive benefits. But that could change in the future if the efforts of the SQ Athletic Association (SQAA) are successful.
“We’re trying to get organized sports recognized by CDCR as a rehabilitation program because we have a lot of examples of people whose lives were changed by sports,” SQAA co-founder Brian Asey told SQNews.
San Quentin has many dedicated sports teams, which are assisted by volunteer coaches and play against established teams from the Bay Area community. Many SQ athletes report that interacting with the outside community makes them feel like a part of society and aids in their rehabilitation.
“You have people out there willing to give us their support – it gives back your humanity,” said Isaiah Love, who played for the SQ Warriors basketball team.
SQ tennis team member Paris Williams added, “Tennis
changed my outlook on life. I learned to humble myself, because on the court there is no racism. I learned to socialize because as an outlaw, you don’t socialize, you live like a chameleon.”
Sports promote an understanding of the importance of rules, strategic thinking, planning, goal setting, self-awareness, and decision-making under pressure. These are all “transferable life skills” that contribute to successful reentry into society, according to Understanding Recreation and Sport
as a Rehabilitative Tool within Juvenile Justice Program, a study published in the Juvenile and Family Court Journal (2002).
Sports and exercising can also be a tool to battle addiction, which can “deprioritize cravings” and help with recovery efforts. Illicit drugs can create a feeling of being “high” by triggering the body to release natural, feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins, but can lead to negative side-effects and dependency. Exercise sessions, even short ones, can release these same feel-good chemicals but instead with positive side-effects, according to Dr. Heather Vincent of the University of Florida’s Health and Sports Performance Center, in her report Running is Medicine for the Brain.
Sports and exercise can benefit mental health at any age, including preventing or slowing cognitive decline and disorders, which can typically begin at age 45, according to Dr. Vincent. This occurs, in part, through hormone regulation and increased blood circulation, which nourishes the brain and preserves its size and its nerve cells. In turn, this benefits areas of the brain that are responsible for key tasks like memory, learning, navigation, and decision-making.
Researchers at the University of Nevada studied the recreation habits in a state prison system and found only a minority of prisoners engaged in sports and exercise regularly enough to generate clear benefits. The most common use of leisure time was watching television, visiting other prisoners, and reading books, which are not as effective in managing tension compared to sports and exercise.
Rehabilitation, in a strict sense, is to help people who committed crimes to socially adjust as persons and into society. The goal of rehabilitation is to teach incarcerated people to live with respect for moral norms and legal regulations. Rehabilitation through sport can instill these social behaviors, noted the Polish study.
“I think that sports [are] the perfect way for the men to utilize what they learn in the self-help programs at a game-time speed. I have confronted my issues by playing sports,” San Quentin’s Brian Asey says.