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Inmates and Checkmates: Using Chess in Prisons

by Emily Sholtis & Anna Nicotera, Basis Policy Research

Since the 1970s, the incarcerated population of the United States has more than quadrupled. Currently, nearly 2.24 million individuals reside in U.S. facilities comprising over 20 percent of the global prison population. Additionally, research has found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners which are as high as 75 percent within the first 5 years. While not an exclusively American phenomenon, these problems with the U.S. criminal justice represent a major social and political concern. So what can be done to address it?

According to Carl Portman in his 2015 presentation at the London Chess Conference, we should give them chess sets. As the manager of chess in prisons for the English Chess Federation since 2014, Portman has worked directly with the largest prison population in Western Europe to take steps to improve their quality of life through chess.

In both the United Kingdom and the United States, inmates typically come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have little to no education. Additionally, while in prison, inmates have limited outlets for their energy and emotions. For Portman, promoting chess, donating equipment, and establishing chess clubs within prison helps address these concerns.

Since assuming the role of manager of chess in prisons, Portman has championed chess in prisons across England. Through his work, Portman has established clubs and given simultaneous exhibitions, encouraging inmates to play and discuss their passion for chess. He continues to increase the number of prison chess clubs and he writes a chess column for the prison newspaper Inside Time which has a readership of 100,000 people. Additionally, he encourages members of the public to donate chess books and equipment.

Currently, there is little quantitative data collection associated with these programs. However, the qualitative feedback, in terms of correspondence between inmates and Portman, indicates that prisoners are both enjoying and benefiting from this intervention. According to Portman, playing chess has helped improve inmates in the areas of relationship building, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and accepting responsibility. Many of these are skills inmates lack and could have long term benefits.

While the scale of incarceration is much larger in the U.S., this chess-based intervention system could promote many of the same returns for American prisoners. No wide-spread chess programs currently operate within the U.S. prison system, but the U.S. Chess Federation organizes a network of 34 chess clubs in prisons and individual facilities have experienced successes similar to those seen in their British counterparts. A notable example shared on NPR’s "All Things Considered" is an annual chess tournament hosted at a Berlin, N.H. prison facility.

Moving forward, Portman hopes to expand his work, and partner with the Ministry of Justice and prison education providers to formalize a program and extend the educational and psychological benefits across English prisons.