Changing the Rules of Recidivism Through Recreation

This paper is a NCRA spotlight article by Mary Dallao, printed in the February 1996 issue (Vol. 58 No.1) of Corrections Today (the American Correctional Association's monthly publication). It is a discussion by Steve Erickson (NCRA president) and Jeani Stoddard (NCRA Publications Editor). It is on pages 80 and 101

. "In the '70s, inmate bikers at some prisons were allowed to ride their Harleys in the prison yard as part of their recreation," laughs Steve Erickson, president of the National Correctional Recreation Association (NCRA). "Now, that's what I call excessive."

Correctional recreation has come a long way since those days. Today, Erickson says, correctional recreation relieves tension resulting from incarceration while encouraging inmates to develop new skills and interests. He stresses that NCRA encourages correctional recreation staff to integrate recreation with other programs, such as counseling and drug rehabilitation, in order to improve the overall education of an inmate. These programs also hope to prevent inmates from returning to crime by making their reintegration in to society easier.

Jeani Stoddard, NCRA publications editor, agrees. "We want inmate recreation to transfer to activities they can continue when they get out," she says, "It's part of the restructuring of a person."

Stoddard stresses that correctional recreation involves more than just sports.. She says good programs should vary sports activities with arts and crafts, music and writing.

"It's important to vary recreational programming," she says. "You really have to tap into individual inmates and find their buttons. We justify diverse programs based on this standard, even though it's expensive to offer so many options."

The expense of correctional recreation coupled with the supposed luxury it affords inmates are two of the reasons many Americans perceive recreation as a privilege inmates don't deserve. NCRA hopes to change this perception.

"Privileges aren't perks," Erickson says. "Even though almost all of these privileges are based on positive behavior, people still have an emotional reaction to correctional recreation. They want inmates putting on stripes and breaking rocks. They don't realize that much of correctional recreation is court mandated, and we are required to offer inmates a comprehensive recreation program."

Stoddard believes public criticism of correctional recreation stems from a subconscious resentment among average citizens.

"Most hardworking, law-abiding Americans tend to look at correctional recreation facilities and think, 'I work hard and obey the laws, but I'm barely making it financially,. If I don't have tennis courts and softball fields in my backyard, why should inmates have them?'" Stoddard says, "Sometimes it's easy for policy makers to forget what the average Joe is going through - and sometimes the average Joe doesn't see that those facilities are available in the community. As humans, we're quick to see the greener grass on the other side of the fence."

However, Erickson and Stoddard maintain that correctional recreation can serve as a vital part of society's protection from recidivism.

"We're responsible for relieving tension and giving inmates alternatives to committing crime," Erickson says. "If we can make a difference with inmates, even one or two, we can save taxpayers thousands of dollars. The fact of the matter is that most incarcerated offenders will get out one day. The question is; Do we want to release them without having offered them constructive ways to spend their leisure time? The public may think that inmates are getting recreation for free, but how much does it cost to rebuild a prison after inmates riot because they don't have constructive ways to spend their time?"

According to Stoddard, correctional recreation ensures that inmates learn ways to fill their time constructively. Activities such as arts and crafts and intramural sports teach inmates much more than the rules of the game; they provide them with psychological benefits. She says good recreation helps inmates to establish personal relationships and learn to respect others while encouraging them to set person goals and challenge themselves.

Erickson agrees, stressing that the correctional recreation profession must be understood by both average citizens and corrections administrators if people are to recognize its benefits.

"People working as correctional recreation leaders are educated people," he says. "A lot of times, people think we just throw out the ball. In fact, in most cases, recreation leaders need four-year degrees. Correctional recreation is well planned, well organized, carefully supervised and evaluated. We take our jobs seriously."

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