Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates have regular access to prison recreation programs. These prison workouts are usually performed in the prison gym. This page explains recreation options in federal prisons, including prison football, arts programs, hobbycraft activities, and music programs in federal prisons.
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Table of contents
- Prison Recreation Programs
- The Prison Rec Yard: Where Inmates Workout
- Prison Sports
- Indoor Recreation: The Gym and Hobby Craft
- Passive Inmate Recreation
- Prison Movie Programs
- Music Programs in Prison
- Social Interactions in the Recreation Department
Prison Recreation Programs
Every federal prison has a Recreation Department where prisoners can exercise and engage in other prison recreation programs. This is where most prison workouts occur. All Recreation Departments within the Federal Bureau of Prisons consist of indoor and outdoor areas.
While the Recreation Department is much more robust at larger federal prisons than smaller ones, all provide some basic services to the inmate population. They are open for many hours, seven days a week. This is a primary prison activity for inmates.
Unless inmates are at their prison job or in a prison education program, they can be in the Recreation Department or prison gym whenever it is open. This usually consists of morning, afternoon, and evening sessions.
Except for inmates housed in special-purpose facilities or Special Housing Units, most inmates have a variety of prison workout and leisure-based opportunities. For example, many inmates enjoy rec time in prison and prison music programs.
The Prison Rec Yard: Where Inmates Workout
Virtually every general population prison in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a large outdoor recreation area. In prison parlance, this is the “big yard.” This is where inmates work out and engage in prison recreation programs (e.g., prison football).
The Recreation Department is a hub of activity at most federal prisons. The yard is usually the epicenter of many social activities. This includes many organized sporting and recreation activities. The yard is a social gathering spot, for better or worse.
The recreation yard often offers many prison sports and workout activities, including:
- Volleyball Courts
- Prison Football
- Softball Fields
A track usually surrounds the recreation yard where prisoners can run or walk. While not standard features, some federal prisons also have treadmills, ellipticals, and tennis courts. These are also popular inmate recreational activities.
Format of Prison Recreation Yards
While construction and design techniques among the 200 or so federal prisons vary substantially, most general population institutions have one or more recreation yards for inmate use. Yards are used for all manner of recreation in prison.
Generally, one main recreation yard contains at least a soccer or prison football field with smaller areas for basketball courts, handball or tennis courts, and other activities. Many also have a free-standing softball field and other prison recreation programs.
The prison security level generally determines how these areas are divided. At high-security federal prisons, yards might be divided by fences that are gated and accessible only during ten-minute moves on the hour.
Other prisons, such as federal prison camps, have one large yard where inmates can move from one area of interest to another unimpeded. Again, configurations vary, but inevitably there are areas for chess and card games, Bocce courts, volleyball, etc.
Inmate Access to Recreation Yards
At most Bureau of Prisons facilities, the recreation yard is open from 6:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with closure periods for the noon meal and inmate counts. This broad access allows inmates some outdoor recreation time regardless of inmate work assignments and other programs.
Some inmates spend significant time in prison workouts in the yard or gym while incarcerated. Likewise, many inmates play in prison basketball and football sports programs.
Inclement or extreme weather such as lightning storms can cause the yard to close. However, the extent to which weather is a factor depends on each institution’s staff culture.
For example, in USP Tucson, where temperatures can reach 120°, the thirty-five-and-over basketball league plays in the afternoon sun. The same is true of prison football games.
At FCI Petersburg Medium, outside inmate recreation is not allowed if the temperature index reaches 100°. FCI Ray Brook has a strong tradition of enduring cold and snow. As such, the yard usually remains open despite temperatures of negative 30° and several feet of snow.
Many institutions have outdoor weights, exercise equipment, and prison recreation programs. While these items are ostensibly for everyone’s use, inmates should note local customs before jumping in and disrupting another inmate’s prison workout routine.
As with many aspects of prison life, inmates can become attached to their routine and are unhappy if new inmates get in their way. Prisoners should observe and ask rather than merely do.
Social Conflicts on Prison Recreation Yards
The yard can be a challenging location for new inmates because supervision is significantly reduced in these large and populated areas. At high-security federal prisons, gun towers loom overhead. At lower-security federal prisons, the staff is stationed on the ground.
Generally, there is a culture within the Federal Bureau of Prisons of leaving supervision loose in the yard. As such, some inmates visit the yard only when forced to, for instance, when their unit is being shaken down.
At some facilities, this reluctance is not without reason. At higher security-level institutions, the yard is where “prison business” is conducted, friendships forged, debts paid, and conflicts resolved.
As the yard is one of the few places where inmates from different housing units can meet, incidents involving violence are relatively common in some places. Common sense and awareness of what’s going on allow inmates to avoid trouble.
Many institutions have staffed gun towers in the yard. Virtually all medium-security or higher-security facilities have armed personnel outside the perimeter fence. Accordingly, when there is trouble in the yard – a fight or a disturbance – it is imperative that inmates move away from the problem calmly and obey any staff directives, especially orders to “get down on the ground.”
Federal Bureau of Prisons staff can use lethal force to quell disturbances. Even nonlethal projectiles fired from gun towers can kill or inflict permanent injury. If it is not an inmate’s business, they should stay away from it.
Every general population correctional facility in the federal prison system offers a variety of sporting events. There are organized leagues for prison basketball, softball, soccer, street hockey, and flag football. Sports programs in prisons are highly popular prison recreational activities.
Virtually every team sport is played somewhere in the prison system. These leagues can be highly organized with inmate coaches, referees, and commissioners. Often several levels of competition are set up for popular sports (A-League, B-League for those thirty-five and over, 5’9”-and-under basketball, etc.).
Prison team sports — for example, prison football leagues — can be a ticket to instant acceptance at many institutions where sports are taken seriously. The same is true of prison workout groups. Skilled inmates might even be offered informal sports contracts for compensation!
Organized Prison Sports Activities
Inmates in the FBOP have a long tradition of working very hard and resourcefully toward achieving high levels of physical fitness. This is often accomplished through recreational activities in prison.
Individual sports are also well funded. Tennis, handball, racquetball, and other individual sports are very popular. For example, prison football is a popular recreation program. Most recreation departments sponsor tournaments for these sports and other contests like fitness challenges on holidays.
While weight rooms in prison gyms are becoming a vestige of the past (new facilities are not permitted to have them), staff are usually committed to finding viable alternatives. They might order kettlebell-style weights (which are not explicitly prohibited) or look the other way while inmates lift homemade sandbags or dirtbags.
Many prisoners find team exercises fulfilling. For example, prison football leagues may not only play football but also lift weights together as well.
Inmates merely must walk up and ask to play if they want to be on a sports team. An excellent way to get an invite is to find someone they know and ask what they are doing. They can then ask how to get on a team or otherwise become involved.
Indoor Recreation: The Gym and Hobby Craft
Most federal prison facilities also have an indoor recreation area. This usually consists of a prison gym or exercise area, hobby craft or prison art program room, and passive recreation area.
Indoors, prisoners generally find arts and crafts programs (e.g., beading, painting, leathercraft, etc.), pool tables, and a band room. Band rooms often contain band equipment such as guitars, microphones, keyboards, and drums.
Some federal correctional facilities also have televisions and tables for playing cards and board games. Pool tables are also available in most institutions, as are areas for music classes and band practices.
The below sections discuss various indoor recreation offerings available in most Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.
The Prison Gym
Some institutions have a prison gym with exercise bikes, treadmills, and other fitness equipment. Exercise equipment has its electronic components removed before placement in prison.
Aerobic classes and yoga are popular, as are high-intensity fitness groups, whether officially sanctioned or otherwise. These bodyweight exercise activities are a common prison workout favorite.
Indoor prison basketball gyms are standard features. The gym is used for organized prison recreation sports programs (e.g., basketball, floor hockey, volleyball leagues, etc.). Indoor handball/racquetball and pickup games are also common. Some facilities use the gym for yoga and exercise classes during the winter months.
Virtually every Federal Bureau of Prisons facility has a gymnasium where inmates play basketball, volleyball, and occasionally other sports. Basketball leagues, like softball, are a staple of federal prison recreation.
The “A” league games can draw hundreds of inmate spectators, complete with uniformed players, referees, announcers, scoreboards, and music thumping through PA speakers.
Weights in Prison
Indoor weight rooms are popular spots if the facility is so equipped. Free weights, cable machines, and various benches and pull-up bars are common in prison gyms.
Some federal prisons might not have weights. Most of the newer institutions do not. Where available, these are primary prison workout activities.
Other facilities might be equipped with a dedicated indoor area for exercise bikes, stair steppers, etc. Still, other prisons offer kettlebells, jump ropes, and other personal fitness accessories. Most of these items are signed out from an inmate-staffed issue room on a first-come, first-served basis.
Prison Art Programs: Prison Hobbycraft Activities
“Hobby craft” is the federal prison term for arts and crafts such as painting, leatherwork, pottery, and beading. Most federal prisons have diverse arts and crafts prison recreation programs.
Participation in these programs usually begins with enrollment in a prison art program, leather class, or related program. Some institutions permit inmates to join hobby craft if space allows or if they demonstrate interest or proficiency.
Materials used in hobby craft programs might be issued to the inmate for classes or programs. They can also arrive through Special Purchase Orders at the prison commissary.
Participation in prison art programs permits inmates to mail personally created items to an approved visitor on the inmate’s visitation list. Inmates can sell their products to the public and Bureau staff only through a preapproved authorization process. This is rarely permitted in practice.
Buying Prison Art Materials
Special Purchase Orders allow inmates to order prison art program supplies from a preapproved vendor through the recreation department. The items are then sold to inmates at the prison’s commissary with a 5 to 30 percent markup, depending on the material and local prison policy.
Most facilities provide space for using arts and crafts materials and lockers to secure personally owned supplies. A secured room or cage issues inmates tools for leathercraft and related activities. These include tools not authorized for personal possession, such as awls and hammers.
Prison Arts Resource Project
Art provides more than the satisfaction of holding something an inmate has made. The Prison Arts Resource Project, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, examined nearly 50 studies of how arts programs inside prisons can impact inmates.
The study found that art programs increased self-esteem and prosocial behaviors while participants were still incarcerated. Prisoners also became increasingly connected to their families because they could share something they had created.
After release, art program participants had a higher chance of favorable outcomes over two years than those who did not participate in any arts-related projects.
The Prison Arts Coalition (PAC) was established in 2008 as a national network for prison arts. They provide support, information, and partnership opportunities. PAC guides inmates to publications and programs that support their desires to advance their craft.
Prison Arts Coalition prison recreation program disciplines include:
- Writing and Poetry
- Visual Arts
To learn more about the Prison Arts Coalition, contact managers Becky Mer, Wendy Jason, or Freddy Gutierrez at [email protected]
Even if an inmate has only a slight interest in hobby craft activities, exploring the opportunities could pay off richly.
Passive Inmate Recreation
Most federal prisons offer a variety of passive recreational activities such as billiards tables, table tennis, and other activities for inmates.
A wide range of leisure activities can occur, from Dungeons and Dragons groups to fantasy football leagues and drama clubs. Many prison recreation departments also offer television viewing, audio CDs and videos, satellite prison libraries, classes, seminars, and groups on various subjects.
Recreation departments are authorized to operate satellite radio services from commercial vendors. These offer a wide range of programming beyond that available in the rural areas where some facilities are located. Inmates can assess these services throughout the institution’s local FM broadcast stations.
Prison Movie Programs
Federal Bureau of Prisons policy permits Recreation Departments to show commercially available movies to the inmate population. This usually occurs through an institution’s closed-circuit television network.
Federal regulations restrict showing any movies rated R, X, and NC-17. R and NC-17 movies may be shown if edited for general public viewing. This restriction generally permits “airline edit” versions of popular films shown on commercial jets.
Foreign language movies are sometimes not rated. They can be shown “if they do not include profanity, graphic violence, or nudity.”
Federal correctional institutions must observe strict compliance with all licensing agreements and copyright requirements when showing movies to the inmate population. As such, some popular movies are not available for inmate viewing. Most prisons enter into licensing agreements through a video distributor. This often includes Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., which brokers the deals.
Many facilities show selections from the latest releases on commercial video or use an inmate request system to choose movies.
Music Programs in Prison
Most facilities offer a music program. Inmates have access to musical instruments ranging from acoustic guitars they can play in the yard to fully-equipped band rehearsal rooms complete with drum sets, amplifiers, and PA systems.
While recent legislation has restricted “electric or electronic musical instrument[s],” most institutions circumvent these restrictions by equipping acoustic guitars with electronic pickups or “borrowing” instruments from the Religious Services Department, which faces no such bar.
High-quality music is made at many institutions, and regular band shows are typical. Inmates are not permitted to own or retain personal instruments except for a harmonica.
Social Interactions in the Recreation Department
The recreation area is a social center at every federal prison. Beyond sports, exercise, and leisure activities, “Rec” is where inmates come together to visit with friends, operate bartering schemes, and otherwise engage in social activities. The prison yard is where alliances are forged and, unfortunately, where many disputes are settled.
Sage advice for new inmates is to sit back and observe the goings-on before jumping in. Every prison has a unique and sensitive culture. This involves unwritten protocols, social expectations, and ethical codes.
In some Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, racial or geographical groups claim certain areas. Pool tables may be “reserved” for certain regular players. And exercise equipment may be used via a strict rotation of users. Learning the lay of the land is the best advice.
Most longtime federal prisoners agree that recreation areas can be a lifesaving respite from the stress of prison life. These can be places where inmates can involve themselves in getting fit, enjoying a diversion or hobby, or simply breathing some fresh air.
In other words, the prison recreation yard can be a place where inmates can be just a little freer.
Published Apr 7, 2016 by Christopher Zoukis, JD, MBA | Last Updated by Christopher Zoukis, JD, MBA on May 12, 2023 at 12:41 pm