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Youth Sports Behind Bars

The state of physical fitness for juvenile offenders is "God awful," but advocates—and some states—are trying to change that.
Courtesy Utah State Office of Education

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The Mill Creek Mavericks, of Cedar City, Utah, are, in many respects, a typical small town team. Its teenage athletes rotate sports depending on the season: flag football, volleyball, baseball. Every week during each sport's month-long season, they'll put on their jerseys—dark green with bright yellow numbers—and board buses bound for Salt Lake City or Logan or St. George. They also travel in shackles, and bathroom breaks need to be coordinated with the local sheriff's office.


All of the Mill Creek Maverick athletes are incarcerated juveniles, among the handful of young people living behind bars who have access to competitive sports. The Utah juvenile system's sports program, which is in its second year, has 50 to 75 participants across all five of the state's facilities, including the Mill Creek Youth Center, a secure facility that's similar to adult prisons. In addition to try outs, inmates have to maintain a C+ average in their classes and steer clear of behavioral infractions in order to participate. Occasionally, members of the nearby Weber State University basketball and football teams come to meet with the Mavericks to run drills and talk about college life.

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"We wanted to give our youth the same opportunity they would have in a public school," Susan Burke, Utah's director of juvenile justice services, said. "If kids can have a more normalized environment, including access to athletics, we're going to see better outcomes for these young people when they leave. They won't feel like they missed out on what their peers had."

Yet their peers aren't necessarily getting great access to athletics, either: among high school students in the U.S., only 18.4 percent meet the daily guidelines of getting 60 minutes of physical activity. Juvenile incarceration disproportionately affects minorities and lower income families—the same communities that have fewer opportunities for physical activity in schools and with organized sports. According to a report on youth sports in America by the Aspen Institute, "what research that is available demonstrates several significant participation and activity gaps between wealthy and poor, Whites and racial minorities, boys and girls, and able-bodied and disabled youth." Households with incomes of $25,000 or lower made up 25 percent of all U.S. households in 2009, for example, yet just 15 percent of all households participating in sports.


"For many of these kids, it's the first time that they've competed on a team," Steven Kaelin, an education specialist with the Utah State Office of Education, said about Mill Creek.

The Mill Creek Mavericks could be a model for other juvenile justice systems. Courtesy Utah State Office of Education

As bad as the state of physical fitness is in the U.S., however, for juvenile offenders it's "God awful," according to David Domenici, co-founder of the Maya Angelou Schools, a Washington, DC-based network of alternative schools. "These were the kids that no one wanted or cared about. Honestly, even getting them good schooling was an afterthought. It's terrible."

Federal guidelines for juvenile offenders stipulate that those incarcerated are entitled to an hour a day of physical activity, but in practice, that may not always happen, advocates said. "It's more about being compliant with an order," Domenici said. "Some guys may play pickup basketball or lift weights, but a lot of people may sit around doing nothing."

Despite the well-known benefits of youth sports participation, however, organized teams for imprisoned juveniles like those in Utah are rare—so rare that there's a lack of participation data.

This could change as part of a broader trend in the justice system toward rehabilitation rather than harsh punishment, particularly for young people. In the past decade, the number of incarcerated juveniles has decreased by 45 percent, according to the Justice Policy Institute, which Craig DeRoche, executive director of Justice Fellowship, called "an American success story." He expects more facilities to adopt sports programs going forward. "We're moving toward a constructive culture where we seek restorative punishment, that punishment should have a purpose," he said.


The main hurdles for expanding opportunities are budget cuts, perceived safety risks, and political reluctance, according to Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Typically, concerns about young people escaping or breaking out into fights are overblown, he said, noting that many are serving time for nonviolent crimes.

"There isn't anything substantially different about their physical needs," Schindler said. "But if they're incarcerated, their needs and care have been turned over to the state. There's an enhanced responsibility for the custodial agency to provide the type of things they're entitled to. We know that young people do better with more opportunities and different types of opportunities. They need some outlet for their energy and to stay healthy."

Juvenile offenders are entitled to physical fitness, too. Courtesy Utah State Office of Education

As for the Mavericks, the program so far has been successful.

"They have uniforms and an identity," Kaelin said. "They play well with the other teams, they slap hands under the net and congratulate each other. It typified the kind of sportsmanship we wanted to see and has been extremely positive in developing relationships. We have had no incidents."

Kaelin said the hope is to expand the program to include more sports, perhaps track and field or table tennis, and, more important, to continue seeing benefits for the young people in Utah—better behavior while incarcerated and reduced recidivism rates once they're out.

"We want them to be ready for that transition back to society."