Boxing in prisons

Boxing could play a role in prisons and the criminal justice system, if those in power were to look at the evidence. MP Phillip Lee explains his frustrations to John Dennen

A proposal to provide boxing tuition in prisons has been rejected by the government, despite a report demonstrating the value of the sport when it comes to reducing crime and the rate of reoffending.

Former justice minister Phillip Lee had commissioned an academic, Professor Rosie Meek to examine how the criminal justice system could make use of sport. “The report has not been published yet,” the MP said. “I’m confident that it will be published eventually. She’s written this independent report. It’s not been written by me and all of her recommendations are based upon her own research and insight.

“She’s basically gone round a number of institutions, contacted a series of organisations, worked out exactly what’s going on. It’s like a semi-audit really of work and then from that there are a series of about a dozen recommendations of what we can do going forward. It’s just a starting point, it isn’t a strategy. What I would have done following on from its publication is then pushed for a strategy to be written about how sport can be incorporated into a typical day in custody… Part of it is trying to break the cycle of criminality. Break the cycle of anti-social behaviour, break the cycle of irresponsibility.”

But the government has rejected the element of the report that recommended using boxing and martial arts. “What was being advocated, I gather it’s now been removed from the report, was under very controlled circumstances,” Lee said. “You’ve got to understand that the recidivism rate, reoffending rate in some of the youth estates is 69%. It’s virtually the definition of failure. Locking them up serves the purpose of locking them up because they’ve done things wrong. But we’re not locking them up and being particularly successful at turning their lives around.

So we have to change that environment so we get a better outcome. And I think sport, competitive sport, macho sport I suppose is a way of describing it, with that sense of physicality, is one part of it. It’s not a silver bullet but I think it’s one part.

“You’ve got to be in control of the circumstances, all of those things are true, you have to do proper security checks, all of that is true. But some blanket ban on it, when you know it can turn some people’s lives around, is not sensible.” Ignoring the results of an independent report is a failure of leadership. “It’s evidence of how policy isn’t evidence-based,” Lee said. “All we can do in this situation is keep pouring out the evidence of the benefits of engaging with these young men, it’s predominately boys or young men, in this way. Call me controversial but I think most people want crime to reduce, that’s generally a given I think, and the evidence coming out of these programmes is it reduces crime. What’s not to like?”

“It really is ludicrous that people think these people don’t know how to harm each other already and more importantly that they don’t have the intention. This is a behavioural problem that we’re dealing with at the moment with knife crime in London. It’s their attitude towards inflicting loss of life,” he continued. “We address that, the motivations of that, understand it, that’s what rational, sensible people do. Rational sensible policymakers follow what works. They don’t follow what might not work on the front page of the Daily Mail. I think it’s just government by cowardice.”

Lee remains determined to press the issue. “I’m not backing off just because I’m no longer a minister,” he said. “This is not how to govern and it’s certainly not how you understand people who are committing criminal acts. You’ve got to understand their motivation to stop them. To give them some other purpose so that they can lead functional, productive lives. The process of going through this report and having a series of meetings has filled me with so much hope because there are people out there who get it. Who understand what it’s like. It’s not perfect. There will be failure along the way of course, humans are flawed, that’s by the very definition of being human. Fundamentally these people know what works and put it into practice and I think government actually should be supporting them.”

This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine

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