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Inmates on Sports-Related Leaves: a Decisive Experience

Laurent Gras
Cet article est une traduction de :
Détenus en permission de sortir sportive : une expérience marquante [fr]


The object of this paper is to discuss sports-related prison leaves, and to analyze the questions these outings raise for those inmates to whom they are granted. Observation of these operations shows that behind the original goal of the sports outing, which is to compete and to share sporting values, another, more crucial stake emerges, having to do with the way they deal with their stigmatizing status, and with the legitimacy of their presence in social events.

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“Dear fellas, I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. The parole board got me into this halfway house called “The Brewer”, and a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. It’s hard work and I try to keep up but my hands hurt most of the time. I don’t think the sotre manager likes me very much. ... I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun, and rob the Foodway so they’d send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense anymore. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not ... not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Nor for an old crook like me.”

Having served his fifty-year sentence, Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) leaves prison and commits suicide.

Taken from the film “The Shawshank Redemption”

1Although there has been no research on sports in prison for several years, some brief but recurrent reflections on the subject, published in several works on prison sociology (Benguigui, Chauvenet and Orlic, 1992; Fabiani, Soldini,1995; Combessie, 1996; Welzer-Lang, Mathieu, Faure, 1996; Lhuilier, Lemiszewska, 2001; Marchetti, 2001) indicate that it does receive some scholarly attention, not only because it has to do with confined bodies (Foucault, 1975; Courtine, 1980; Vigarello, 1978)1, but also because it brings up questions connected with the decompartmentalizing process2 developed by the correctional milieu itself so as to reintegrate itself in public institutions as a whole (Soulier, 1991)3.  

2The definition of sports offered by the national correctional facilities shows that there are in fact several categories of sporting practices4, involving specific forms and stakes. Within this overall framework, the object of the present text is to refine the analysis of one of these – sports-related leaves – and to show how this particular practice highlights the all-important question of “the ties linking prison with social relations as a whole” (Chantraine, 2004).

3The first reason is because the study of these leaves considers the sanction, the treatment of prisoners, and their rehabilitation (Gras, 2001). Indeed, the way these operations are planned and go off shows that the development of restorative justice is not always self-evident, since each learning experience or other pleasure encountered while serving a sentence raises the question of its punitive dimension (Kaminski, 2002).

4Next, because from the beneficiary’s viewpoint, participation in sports events outside of prison entails another problem, that of handling a stigmatizing identity in ordinary social life. It not only provides a “cover” that helps  him ease his apprehension at leaving prison, but also confronts him with the occasionally hostile reactions of the outside world. The idea that sports-related leaves naturally contribute to plunging the inmate in a sphere of social activity, in a sort of “niche in free society, where he can be tolerated” (Goffman, 1971, p.336) actually requires further scrutiny.

5On the basis of Goffman’s work on stigmatization, this hypothesis will be discussed using anonymous sports events during which inmates are not identified as such, followed by sports events in which “normal” and stigmatized individuals mix (Goffman, 1963). In other words, but using that author’s terms, the idea is to distinguish those situations in which the inmate is discreditable – that is, where the others are unaware of his difference – and situations in which he is discredited – that is, where his unfortunate handicap is revealed. First of all, we find it necessary to outline the legal framework defining these measures so as to define the conditions governing access to them.

6The findings discussed in this article are taken from semi-directive interviews with 21 inmates, 13 sports monitors, 7 guards and 4 prison directors. This type of technique, our main means of investigation, was essential in comprehending the significations of sports practices. At the same time, open interviews were conducted with actors outside the facilities. Along with this information-collecting, field work was done in four detention centers. The purpose was to observe sports events, and to collect documents, letters and reports connected with our study.

1. Definition of a Leave

7For the institution, preparation for release aims at furthering the inmate’s rehabilitation so as to keep the difficulties and breakdown in social relations entailed by imprisonment to a minimum. This preparation for release takes many forms, since it includes all social rehabilitation arrangements pertaining to health, administrative procedures5, housing, training, work and family life. While leaves are an active part of this scheme, generally speaking, the study of sports-related leaves reveals some peculiar features.

1.1. Accessibility: Legal Framework and Prison Record

8Leaves are probationary measures in their own right, with specific criteria for selection as well as institutional expectations tied to the preparation of release. They are regulated by several articles in the code of criminal proceedings. First of all, these leaves allow the prisoner to travel to a place located on the national territory (art. D. 142), provided he is not serving a safety period (art. 142-1). Given these requisites, the legal framework also depends on the duration of these measures. For leaves not exceeding one day, inmates sentenced to no more than five years and those sentenced to over five years but having served half of their sentence may receive the benefit of these measures in the following cases: visit to an employer, attendance at an examination, visit to a medical center, military formalities, cultural and sports activities, appearance before a criminal or an administrative court (art. D. 143). In case of serious family problems, a three-day leave may be granted to prisoners with the same profile (art. D. 144). Furthermore, three-day leaves may also be granted in order to maintain family ties with a view to preparing social rehabilitation. The requisites are somewhat variable, however, since they are only applicable to inmates having served half of their sentence, the remainder of which must not exceed three years (art. D. 145). No such time limit is imposed for prisoners serving one or several sentences not exceeding one year (art. D. 145). Last, inmates must be capable of supporting the cost of a leave, since no authorization is delivered without proof of financial solvency, housing and transportation (art. D. 147).

9Sports-related leaves, granted only to prisoners with rehabilitation projects, are mostly delivered by training prisons. This category of facilities, which are more oriented toward rehabilitation, function within a specific legal framework in which it is easier to deliver such leaves. Article D. 146 specifies that inmates given leaves to prepare social rehabilitation may be given the benefit of this sort of measure once they have served one third of their sentence, as opposed to one half for other prisons (maisons d’arrêt and maisons centrales), with nothing specified as to the remainder of the sentence. In training prisons, leaves may last five days, and ten days once a year, whereas the preferred length of such leaves is limited to three days in the other two categories of correctional facilities.

10Projects for sports-related leaves (delivered by sentence-serving committees) are presented by sports monitors and rehabilitation and probation counselors, then debated with the guards, the public prosecutor’s office, the director and the judge in charge of sentence-serving, on the basis of information in the individual’s record. The final decision is in the hands of the latter6. These leaves are not granted on the sole basis of the legal framework, then: the judge in charge of sentence-serving also considers the value and legitimacy of the projects as well as the information contained in the inmate’s record (nature of the offence, psychiatric reports, previous imprisonment, behavior in detention) (Delmas Saint-Hilaire, 2001). Similarly, the decision-makers do not spontaneously perceive sports-related leaves as a right to which each inmate may be given access when the remaining prison term authorizes it, but rather as a reward granted for what is deemed to be satisfactory behavior. These projects therefore also help to preserve order within the prison.

1.2. Stakes of Sports-related Leaves: Official Functioning...

11Sports-related leaves take a large variety of forms: inmate participation in local clubs, wilderness activities7, or training workshops (such as rock-climbing, rafting, or sand-yachting) More rarely, an inmate may be given leaves every Wednesday to train children in a local club.

12The purpose of these leaves, generally speaking, is to resume contact with the outside world, and therefore to make for a better release, later on. However, these projects are so varied as to induce very different experiences and encounters, entailing varied effects.

13To confine ourselves to sports proper, these leaves first provide inmates with an opportunity to measure themselves against athletes who are free, and therefore to reconsider their training in the light of performances outside prison. Conversely, other projects, are of a less competitive and a more hedonistic nature, in the prospect of an individual (or family) quest for freedom and pure pleasure, as well as of shared emotion (Loret, 1995, 33). In prison, the impact of these new trends has translated into many projects for ecological and nature-discovery-oriented sports-related leaves. One sports monitor, for instance, who took a few inmates to run outside the prison walls once a week, claimed that nature, pine trees, the smell of thyme and lavender, gave an ecological and cultural turn to these outings. Another, after a  leave for a “diving” expedition, explained that the group had fantastic memories of that experience.

1.3.... and Reluctances

14Although there is nothing but sports involved, this series of activities nonetheless leaves the guards somewhat bitter. When interviewed, they told of their difficulty in perceiving the sense of these projects, not only with relation to their own function as guard, but because they themselves do not always have access to experiences of that kind. Under the influence of the (invisible) power of the prison-workers’ trade union and more generally of the power of public opinion, from which the corrections administration sometimes finds it difficult to take a distance in its undertakings, a sports monitor stated that he had been dissuaded from organizing an alpine skiing project because it might look like a holiday camp. He finally succeeded in organizing a cross-country skiing excursion, probably because that seems to be less playful and more strenuous8

15Moreover, these sports-related leaves raise a basic problem as to the legitimacy both of allowing inmates to go out, and of their occupation of public and sports facilities. Requests for authorization to use some local sports facilities are consistently the object of difficult negotiations with the local administration, when the latter does not simply refuse to accept any such groups. Other, more individual reactions express such reluctances as well. For instance, the principal of an elementary school located near a training prison claimed to be somewhat bitter about the money invested in sports facilities for the prison, whereas the regional council had not given her a large enough subsidy for a projected outing for her pupils. Her statement is also indicative of the potential repercussions of prison-related sports activities on actors within the “sensitive perimeter of the custodial environment” (Combessie, 1996).

16Here, then, we see how these sports-related projects raise social stakes that question the very sense of sentences to confinement, which, like work, are subject to the rule of less eligibility, according to which prison must not raise the inmates’ standard of living above that of the least well paid worker in our society (Rusche and Kirchheimer, 1939). Even more, and alongside of the legitimization of other, more punitive schemes such as community service orders by the argument of a “different justice”, that rule questions the very legitimacy of restorative undertakings. Since these are construed as a source of satisfaction and pleasure, it is apparently difficult to view them as participating in the logic of imprisonment and punishment, and even in the mental perception of guilt.

17The meaning given to these leaves by the inmates themselves reveals a completely different reality.

2. Impact of Carceralization

18From the inmate’s viewpoint, there are other things at stake than the purely sports-related function of leaves allowing them to leave the prison premises. While the beneficiaries of these specific leaves may actually derive some definite advantages from them, directly, in terms of actual practices, and also more indirectly, through the physical and symbolic break created by the leave itself, these leaves entail some identity problems that require further attention.

2.1. Exporting Inmate Status

19Like the shock of incarceration (Goffman, 1961; Lhuilier, Lemiszewska, 2001), prison exits on leave generate characteristic reactions caused by the process of assimilation to the prison world, with its peculiar culture and way of life. Following these leaves, for instance, inmates are often seen to experience difficulty in mentally and physically perceiving social space, because they are excessively, subconsciously steeped in the atmosphere of the prison cells and courtyards. Given, as D. Clemmer points out, that the internalization of these habits is proportionate to the length of confinement, release, and by extension, leaves, produce actual physical and identity disorders corroborating the eternal correlation between adjustment to prison and social disaffiliation (Clemmer, 1940; Chantraine, 2004). Several sports monitors report strange behavior, such as inmates on leave who constantly ask their authorization for each and every movement, insistently asking them to open doors and to allow them to leave the table. Similarly, one sports monitor claimed to have seen an inmate on leave stalk his grounds, in that he could have walked one hundred meters but he only took ten steps, automatically, like in the prison courtyard.

20Along with those quasi-mechanical effects, other more conscious ones make inmates, paradoxically, ponder anxiously about the prospect of release. The reason behind this reaction is that while serving their sentence, inmates are in a process of total detachment from real life and everyday habits, in spite of themselves, and after a while they wonder whether they will be able to cope with them. So it is not uncommon to discover that the very fact of leaving the prison premises produces an inhabitual state of exhaustion, from which it may take a few days to recover. One man returned, harassed not so much by the fatigue of the combats themselves, but from everything that hits you when you haven’t been outside for nine years; another one said he came back dead beat, feeling nauseous.

2.2. The Experience of Anonymity

21Although being in prison doesn’t show in any way that would attract immediate stigmatization9, inmates tend to believe that everything they know about themselves is written on their face. The persuasiveness with which the correctional institution’s mechanisms forced them to consider themselves as deficient commonly leads inmates on leave who are in contact with people from the outside world or who know they are under observation to imagine that their failings are visible. Some corroborate the feeling of paranoia they felt when on leave, and the idea that everyone who looked at them knew they were inmates at the local prison.

22Despite the very minor gratifications attached to these outings, leaves therefore explicitly underline the effects of the internalization of physical habits and of their stigmatizing status, precisely when inmates are attempting to get away from them. Now, the advantage of some sports-related leaves is to relieve the tensions caused by this social maladjustment. Because they enable stigmatized individuals to match themselves with the pre-established conduct for the sport and to recompose their behavior so as to minimize their unfortunate difference, sports activities provide a preconstructed identity that serves as “coverage” (Goffman, 1963). By adopting the behavior appropriate to the sport they are more easily able to enter spaces where it is practiced, and to appease the tensions caused by the outing and the encounters, while showing themselves to be “gentleman deviants” (Goffman, 1963).

23In the course of these leaves, then, inmates learn that they can circulate among other people who won’t notice anything. Sports-related leaves thus mark their beneficiaries, since they give them an opportunity to take advantage of an identity from which they had never profited since the beginning of their detention, despite their awareness of being afflicted with a handicap. Local races are a good example of that kind of sports events situation. They are open to all10, bring out large crowds, often with several hundred and sometimes with several thousand runners, very different from each other, so that each participant is lost in the crowd. Runners talk among themselves, in an anonymous fusion, encouraging sociability and natural encounters (Bessy, 1995; Segalen, 1994).

24All in all, visibly, these leaves are valuable in that they make the beneficiary realize that he can go to public spaces again and socialize with the people he meets there without showing where he comes from. But when that inmate on leave is no longer anonymous and his stigmatizing identity is revealed to the people he encounters, he has many surprises in store.

2.3. Mixed Contacts: a Question of Acceptance

25When they find themselves in ordinary social spaces again after a long prison stay, inmates encounter many difficulties in coping with social situations they are no longer accustomed to facing. The most delicate problem is how to handle their stigma when people are cognizant of their situation. The awareness that registering inmates for sports events may generate a malaise if the organizers are not informed sometimes obliges sports monitors to negotiate their acceptance11.

26In some places where outside sports events take place, inmates are identified as such, then.  No longer “discreditable” individuals – that is, susceptible of having their difference discovered – they are then “discredited”. This visibility is all the more important since the discovery of a stigma produces an overall readjustment of the other person’s perception of the inmate’s identity, so that his every act is consistently interpreted through the lens of that difference (Goffman, 1963).  

27During an outside football tournament, one player told an inmate on leave who had just committed a foul that “we’re not in prison here, and we don’t play like prisoners”. What was an extremely common football fault for a specialist suggested that all sorts of incongruous expressions, even the most “natural” ones, would not be tolerated when coming from a stigmatized person. This incident also shows how “normal” people sometimes spontaneously single out minor incongruities to reinforce the prejudices they project on an individual from whom that kind of behavior is to be expected. Later the same afternoon, an outside player who was introduced to complete the prisoners’ team was heckled by another outside player, “So you’re drinking Ricorée now?” The following day, an interview with one of the inmates present on the scene showed me how much that remark had affected him, to the point of dissuading him from participating in other future events of that kind12.

28This kind of sports event elicits many doubts, then. For the sports monitor, accountable to his superiors for having the encounter go well, but also for the people most concerned, who know they are discredited and wonder how they will be treated and what kind of welcome they will receive, especially the first time their failing is officially publicly exposed to the outside world. The question then arises of the degree to which outside actors tolerate and accept their participation. Whereas that participation presupposes the collaboration of sports officials, all of the individuals with whom the inmate will be in contact are not necessarily informed, or sufficiently tolerant to accept that arrangement. So sports-related leaves do not simply cause uncertainty, they also lead to questioning of the suitability of having inmates present during sports events. For one elementary school principal, for instance, “incarcerated individuals should never be given a family leave or a sports-related leave, or any other privilege that goes along with those operations. As long as inmates are serving their sentence, they should stay in prison. After that, it’s all forgotten. They have paid their debt to society and they can do what they like.”

29The concern felt is all the more serious in that it touches on the very sense of the presence of inmates in social space (Isaac Joseph, 1998), or in other words, their reinstatement in society. It is one thing to meet them within the custodial environment, but it is quite another to have them leave that environment, and enter and disturb the order of ordinary social arrangements.

30This natural anxiety would probably be more contained if those leaves did not bring inmates into contact with the rest of the population, and above all, face to face with its reactions. The remarks of sports monitors showed the protective dimension of the prison walls, which oblige visitors to act respectfully. Removed from the protective framework of the prison premises, the stigmatized individual understands that the solemn attitudes of outside players when they came to play in prison were just put on for the circumstance. When they are no longer obliged to commiserate with those outcasts, but also and above all forced to accept them, outside players may well express their rejection. During some encounters, several inmates claimed to have been literally massacred by their opponents without any reaction from the referee to sanction the faults committed. Similarly, a corrections administration official, former physical education teacher in prisons, told us about the animosity that reigns there, the insults and shouting during matches. Sports-related leaves may reach a critical point, then, at which “the people” expresses its hostility to offenders, and by the same token dissuades reluctant inmates from repeating that kind of experience13.

31What is involved here is not the individual profile of the stigmatized person, but really “the threshold of the ordinary clinical judgment which must be understood” (Joseph, 1998, 88), which is to say, the problems raised by the cooperation and coordination between those people who are officially responsible and those who end up in charge although they never explicitly asked for that responsibility.

32As a rule, then, it would be a mistake to view these leaves as totally liberating, freeing inmates of all constraints. More accurately, they should be construed as an experience preparing for release, a learning experience for the anxiety attached to it.


33E. Hughes recommends that we examine cases offering the least resistance to sociological analysis (E. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 30-31) so as to obtain information on a sensitive milieu; by looking at sports, the study of which is sometimes considered futile, if not to say negligible, for academic research (Duret, Trabal, 2001; Bromberger, 1995, p. 314), we may broach some basic questions raised by individuals’ relations to the custodial institution.

34First of all because the very fact that sports are practiced and projected in prison raises the question of the nature of correctional treatment and, even more generally, of the value of the sanction and the meaning of the sentence. It shows that although prisoners are allowed to study, to acquire training and participate in professional and sociocultural activities, it is still difficult to combine the punitive dimension of sentencing with a logic of redemption.

35The study of the exportation of the status of prisoner during sports-related leaves is particularly significant in this respect, not only because these leaves clearly demonstrate the way a prison sentence leaves physical and mental imprints that are difficult to erase, but also because those outside encounters also act as reminders. It shows that while the beneficial experience of anonymity convinces inmates that their stigma is invisible and therefore reassures them about the possibility of returning to society relatively easily, the situations in which they are discredited warn them of the malaise possibly generated by their presence.

36However, since these experiences make them aware that “life is not all smooth sailing”14 and that there may be many disappointments in store, it does seem that sports-related leaves serve as a real preventive scheme for social reactions, contributing to the preparation of prison-leaving. First of all because the inmate is given an apprenticeship for his future release, with the support of a regulated, ritualized activity. Next, because these encounters allow him to think ahead and anticipate the difficulties he will confront when freed. Last, because experiments with this sort of projects shows that as time goes by “normal people” reconsider and revise their stereotypes. Sports-related considerations then gradually replace the reluctances expressed during the first leaves, and with time, “normal people” discover the human dimension of people they thought had none.

37TRANSLATION Helen Arnold

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The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, taken from a novel by Stephen King.

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1 Sports in prison actually do raise the central question of the relationship to one’s body, which may be viewed as an additional object for surveillance and discipline in prison, or conversely, as a means of freeing oneself of institutional constraints.
2 To decompartmentalize is to obtain a new involvement in prison life for the natural monitors of the various activities or situations in which imprisoned individuals may be considered independently of their penal situation; that is, work, health, sports, culture, teaching, vocational training.
3 Since the 1980s, this opening up to the outside world has taken the form of organized sports sessions conducted by certified operators and trainers for sports-related work, as well as of agreements and covenants between the ministry of Justice and the ministries of Youth and Sports and of Education, facilitating the integration of inmates in external sports schemes.
4 Five categories of physical fitness and sports activities are defined: physical exercise in cells, unsupervised activities among inmates (muscle-building, spontaneous encounters during walks), special sports events (telethon, visits by sports champions, “city/life/vacation” operations, sports festivities...) and official competitions and sports-related leaves.
5 To obtain a national identity card or a valid passport to return to the country of origin, to lift the suspension of a driving license, and so on.
6 However, the Public Prosecutor can appeal the decision when he disagrees with the position of the judge in charge of sentence-serving.
7 Mountain biking, local races, trekking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, rafting, windsurfing, diving, rock-climbing, horseback riding, rowing.
8 Exercise and physical effort tend to be viewed within the overall constraint-based logic of physical punishment. This conception is more fully developed in Gras, Le sport en prison, analyse sociodémographique des carrières sportives de détenus, Thesis in sociology and demography, pp. 45-56.
9 With the exception of some tattoos, but only an experienced eye would know they were due to a prison stay.
10 Prisoners are still barred from some races, however. For example, the Médoc marathon, where participants are able to do Bordeaux wine-tasting along the way. O. Bessy, “Le marathon du Médoc ou le carnaval de la course à pied” in Sport, fête et société, p. 128.
11 This is more specifically the case when inmates are taken into local clubs and proposed as trainers for children. To obtain the agreement of families, a meeting with the officials and the sports monitors is organized at the beginning of the year. Some parents are reticent. Acceptance of inmates within the club is often subjected to some requirements, particularly with respect to the type of offense committed.
12 Since prisoners are not allowed to drink coffee they must resort to a “substitute product” such as Ricorée, which is one of the goods usually bought at the prison store. Now that it is packaged in plastic rather than metal, it can pass the metal detectors.
13 Even when prisoners participating in a sports event do very well, as when they won a foot race, the sports monitor was obliged to refuse the first prize, which was outdoor furniture, and to take what was initially supposed to be the second prize, sports carrying bags.
14 W. Y. Baker and L. H. Smith, “Facial Disfigurement and Personality”, Journal of the Medical Association, CXII (1939) in E. Goffman, Stigma, 1963 , op. cit. p. 21)
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Laurent Gras, « Inmates on Sports-Related Leaves: a Decisive Experience »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. II | 2005, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2007, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurent Gras

Laurent Gras est Enseignant-Chercheur à l’Ecole Nationale d’Administration Pénitentiaire : 440, Avenue Michel Serres B.P.28 47916 AGEN Cedex 9.

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