Victoria Jones is just five feet three inches, but don’t let her diminutive stature fool you — she’s strong enough to take on an entire team of prisoners, and that’s exactly what she does several times a week.
Jones is the coach of Sinclair Community College’s women’s basketball team in Ohio. The college offers classes in seven of Ohio’s prisons. Jones is the site supervisor for the college’s educational program at Dayton Correctional Institute, and works with students, professors and support staff involved in the program.
Although her role as a prison educator is in the classroom and not on the court, Jones applies all the rules of the game to her coaching style. She demonstrates to female inmates that they can achieve greatness, even when they’re behind bars. If she can lead an entire team of athletes that tower over her, the inmates trust that Jones can help them succeed in a world that wants to sweep them under the rug and limit their chances on the outside.
Leading a team means making snap decisions on behalf of the entire team time and time again, and while under pressure. Coaches make excellent role models for prisoners whether they are teaching sports or business classes, because coaches know how to deal with volatile people and situations. A coach can show an inmate how to think rationally when the world around them is loud and moving fast, and how to be a team player in a world where looking out for number one is championed.
That being said, the role of actual sports in prison cannot be understated either. When we think of sports played inside prison walls, we have to think further than pure athletics.
It’s long been established that being active is good for the body and the mind. Research has shown that chemicals that improve mood, relaxation, and focus are released with exercise, and that physical activity can have effects similar to those of psychotropic drugs. Participating in sports can also boost confidence, which is an important factor in success upon release for prisoners.
In her book Sport in Prison, author Rosie Meek identifies yet another benefit of team-based physical activity behind bars. Meek notes that the excitement, risk, and challenge of sports offers a healthy alternative to the excitement, risk, and challenge of offending behavior. She further notes that those engaging in sports build more positive social networks, and have access to better role models. Her research correlates participating in sports with positive outcomes across criminology, psychology, and sociology, with benefits shown in and out of prison, for both the inmates and the correctional staff.
Sports in prison are more than just a way for inmates to blow off steam. And utilizing leaders such as coaches in prison, whether they are on the court or in the classroom, can be a key factor in reducing recidivism. As we look toward new programs to rehabilitate inmates, it would be wise to consider programs that involve sports, and the coaches whose work is to inspire and lead.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.