You say it to yourself every time you enter one of these joints. Doors clang or roll or buzz shut behind you, and you think, "If I really had to, if I really really had to, I could do time. Not that I want to, God help me, God help any man who crosses the river into darkness. But if I had to—with the help of sports, maybe—I could do time. I'm sure I could...."
Who is this man? My name is Gregory Lowe, a/k/a Beetle. I'm incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, Pa. I'm five-foot-six, I weigh 238 lbs. I'm a hungry new lifter. I'm the Ohio Valley Teamsters Prison Postal Meet National Champion in the 242-lb. class. Good competition is hard to find.... I'm calling out to all area lifters in the 242-lb. class. Are you man enough to come in and challenge me? Come on with it.
Beetle—subject and author of that missive, which he sent to lifting clubs and newspapers all over the mid-Atlantic area—stands now with his fellow thieves and murderers amid the tools of their trade, bars and iron. The room is called the Pit, which is exactly what it should be called. The Pit is filled with weights and the sour odor of sweat and the even more acrid odor of penance. It is eight steps down from the main level of the Graterford prison, a dark, aging structure that sits on a rise overlooking the Perkiomen Creek, 31 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Graterford has 2,539 inmates, only 500 more than capacity; that is quite low for an American prison, since almost all are overflowing from an unchecked torrent of criminals.
The main walls at Graterford are 30 feet high, which is about as high as prison walls go. "To climb over with a rope you would have to have a terrific power-to-weight ratio," says Graterford public information officer Alan LeFebvre. Beetle has a very high power-to-weight ratio. After less than two years of serious lifting, he has bench-pressed 425 pounds, deadlifted 750 and squatted 825—one ton, total. But even if his muscles could get him to the top of a 30-foot rope, they couldn't stop bullets. A sign on the wall of the Pit proclaims WHEN MIGHT MAKES RIGHT, which is the principle upon which all prisons are built, an axiom even dogs understand.
Beetle sits on a bench and proudly holds out the certificate that documents his 825-pound squat, the state powerlifting record he set on Dec. 5, 1987 here in the Pit. He's a champion lifter who is unable to attend outside meets. That, of course, is one of the problems of being a convicted killer. But Beetle, at 32, isn't brash or mouthy like some of the younger lifters around him. He looks at the floor when he says softly, "I thought a lot about it being a pity—being in here. I could've learned it all out there, but I bypassed that."
Beetle is black, as is every other lifter in the room. And though the American penal system has a disproportionate number of inmates who are from minorities, Beetle can't blame race for his troubles. He played football at Cheyney (Pa.) State for two seasons but "got messed up with drinking, mostly," he says, and let the bad guys he hung around with back in Philly "dictate what I did."
As he climbs under the bar at the squat rack, he looks as dark and dense as a cast-iron June bug. BEETLE is tattooed on his huge left biceps; it's impossible to imagine a better nickname for the man. He does 10 quick squats with 135 pounds, then steps back and mumbles instructions to the inmates around him. They're working on their own projects, but they defer to him. "He's definitely a new kind of hero," Graterford assistant weight coach Bob Felton wrote in a note he appended to Beetle's aforementioned letter. Other inmates have begun to peer through the grimy window in the hallway overlooking the Pit. Beetle has had some fame. He has been written up in local newspapers for his feats. And now Felton is narrating the scene for a prison video crew taping Beetle's workout for broadcast on the in-house cable TV channel.
Like most prison recreation officials, Felton believes deeply in the value of sports for inmates. "A lot of prisoners start out thinking, 'It's you against the weight.' " he says. "But it's not. It's you against you. Like life. That's something men must learn."
Darryl (Smash) Ford, who's serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, and Preston (the General) Ryan put more weight on the bar for the Beetle. Ryan, who's missing a front tooth and is serving 12½ to 30 years for murder and aggravated assault, is a huge man who competes in the 275-pound class. He says that he's addicted to powerlifting: "I have no choice. I can't stop. Like those runners you hear about."
Beetle squats quickly five times with 315 pounds, then does four reps with 500. Five hundred pounds is the point at which a standard Olympic bar, such as the one in use here, starts to bow.
Beetle walks away from the rack and carefully wraps his knees with bandages for support. Sweat beads that look like blisters appear on his forehead. "If I don't get out, I will continue to lift and try to inspire kids not to choose this route," he says. "I could tell them about prison life, about not having an identity. I could tell them about the pressure. I could tell them that, in here, you're not really considered human anymore."
Stop for a moment and think about this: Killers lifting weights, getting stronger, outgrowing their clothes (Beetle is an expert tailor, which enables him to alter his prison garb to fit as he grows brawnier), men of violence developing the means to commit further violence. Terrifying, eh? Guards at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Hawaii won't even let most of the inmates get near the shiny new Universal weight machine in the yard. "The guards don't want the prisoners to be bigger than they are," says OCCC administrator Beryl Iramina. Yet athletics may be the most beneficial aspect of prison life. And so much of it starts with lifting. Getting stronger. First physically, then mentally. What could be more primitive or therapeutic than hoisting something heavy?
Still, Beetle isn't sure he wants to be a hero for his efforts. A champion, yes. But he knows you do time alone, that fans and flatterers can't help, that trophies are just junk. If he stays inside for the rest of his life, as he might, all the records he sets will be only markers of the passing time, like the myriad pencil slashes on the walls of the Pit. Former Georgia State Prison convict and current religious author-lecturer Warren Morris says that far from supporting—much less idolizing—one another, prisoners are normally antagonistic toward their fellows. "They hate each other," says Morris. "Inmates usually pull for outsiders. That's something people don't understand." Are Beetle's fellow inmates for him or against him? Does it make any difference how they feel?
Beetle squats with 600 pounds. Then 725. His face looks as though it might explode. He tells the others to put 800 pounds on the bar.
Beetle stands under the bar and stares into nothingness. Some inmates insult his manhood. They hoot and scream. "He's tightening his belt," Felton says quietly to the video camera's built-in mike. "He's lifting the straps of his suit...."
Beetle grabs the bar, lets it sink into his unpadded shoulders and takes two tiny steps backward. His entire body shakes. He drops quickly into a squat, and the wraps look as though they are cutting his legs in half. He slowly rises, veins bulging like baby snakes on his temples and forearms, the weight bouncing slightly on his shoulders. It is hard to tell if the screaming inmates are rooting for him to rise or to crash to the floor. "Never surrender!" yells Smash. "Make a way!"
Beetle quivers and strains and, slowly, ever so slowly, stands up straight and puts the bar back on the rack. He has lifted the front end of a small car. His eyes are still not precisely focused. An inmate quickly unwraps his knees. Within seconds the din dies away and the others continue their workouts as though nothing has happened. But for an instant there, Beetle looked as if he were free.
Ah, freedom. What a word. It may be the hardest in the world to define, for who can say when freedom has come or gone, or whether one really wants it when it arrives? Indeed, Byron's prisoner of Chillon grew to love his "very chains" and feared only his release from his dank, pillared dungeon. One would think that having known the liberation of competition and the joy of success, athletes would be particularly loathe to end up in the slammer. And yet there are superb athletes moldering away across the U.S. penal system, with every prison claiming its own sports legend.
At the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, there's a 45-year-old weight-lifting, basketball-dunking fool who has been in for 22 years. His name is Alfred (Jump) Jones, and last summer he hit a softball 393 feet—far enough to clear the prison wall. Jones is also notable for having no tongue; he bit it off when he crashed his car while being pursued by the police. He's doing life for first-degree murder. The Kansas state pen also boasts a one-handed athlete named Frank Lucas. Lucas, 38, who has served 19 years for robbery, assault and possession of stolen property, lost his hand when he intervened in a prison fight and was brutally stabbed. Inmates who knew him before the accident say he is a better basketball and softball player now than when he had two hands.
But then, it is always hard to get at the truth in prison. With so much time to sift and re-create the past, the inmates themselves quite often don't know what's true anymore. Once, during a visit to Stateville Prison in Joliet, Ill., inmate after inmate spoke to a reporter with certainty about how he was either completely rehabilitated or needed only someone out on the street—someone smart, someone, hey, just like a reporter—to do legwork for him, to find that elusive witness, the guy who would prove it was all a setup, a bum rap. When a prison official heard about this, he just laughed. "Didn't you know?" he said. "Nobody's guilty in prison."
But the people inside do need hope, and prison athletes may sometimes offer some. There are the rare ones, like Manuel (Jungle Jim) Rivera, who played major league baseball, mostly for the Chicago White Sox, for 10 years after serving time for attempted rape, and Ron LeFlore, who became an All-Star outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. LeFlore was in the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson for armed robbery when Billy Martin, then the Tiger manager, heard there was this con named LeFlore who could really play ball, and offered him a try-out. And then there are the shadowy sports demigods who peak in prison. Such a man was Richard (Pee Wee) Kirkland, a little gunner from Harlem who in 1974 averaged more than 70 points a game for the U.S Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pa., the only prison team in a basketball league made up of "outside" squads of approximately junior college skill level. In one game Kirkland, who never played in high school or college, scored 135 points.
As you can imagine, prison sports stories often include a sort of grim humor. "We have no away games and no pole vaulting," says Frank Elo, an aide to the warden at Jackson. Ba-doom! "We try not to take inmates serving life sentences out to communities to play football games," says Jerry Massie, public information director for Oklahoma's 13 state prisons. Why? "They have a tendency to go deep on passes and not come back." Tadum!
You put Burt Reynolds and a bunch of ugly guys in a football-convict movie such as The Longest Yard, and a prison begins to seem like Animal House with firearms and no coeds. But when Reynolds' crew left the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville after three months of filming in 1973, it left behind the bleachers it had built as well as all the football equipment used for the movie. The real inmates then wore the movie jerseys to play a team of Georgia State Troopers, much the way the movie cons had played the prison guards in The Longest Yard's climactic game. But the real game quickly got out of hand, with inmates pummeling the out-of-shape troopers for their alleged arrogance. "Here are these guys who couldn't play a lick cussing us and saying what they were going to do to us," recalls Morris, who coached the inmate team. "So we said, 'Screw 'em. Let's kill 'em!' "
The game was called at the half, with the inmates ahead, 66-0. End of prison football in Georgia.
There may have been a real escape in which a centerfielder chased a fly ball over the wall to freedom, but nobody can recall such a thing. There have been other wild doings at prison sporting events, though, such as the fight that broke out on the field at the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville in the early '70s during a game between a semipro baseball team and an inmate team. Although no one was seriously hurt in the melee, so-called free-world teams no longer come inside to play.
Outside sports teams do regularly play basketball and softball and lift weights against inmate teams at some state and federal prisons, however, and the convicts are often able to dominate. Credit that success to long hours of practice (some of the more liberal prisons allow inmates 50 or more hours a week of gym or field time) and to cohesion (a team of guys doing time can get closer than the Lakers). Then, too, there's the matter of talent. Consider Steve Lusby, 6'4", 210 pounds, who led the 1982 national championship University of Miami baseball team with a .374 batting average. He's now doing 15 years for drug trafficking at a Florida prison, where he's the star of an inmate softball team called the Ritz Crackers. For a time, the Texas system claimed a renowned pair of superb young athletes, 6'6" basketball player Andre McDade, 20, of Denton (21 years for aggravated sexual assault), and football defensive back Charles Washington, 21, of Dallas. McDade was a high school district MVP and a certain college hotshot—before he was arrested as a high school junior. "We definitely were recruiting him," says former North Texas State coach Tommy Newman. "But then everybody else in this part of the country was, too." Washington was a Parade magazine All-America who signed with the University of Texas in '84 but was in and out of trouble—and ended up behind bars for four months on an assault conviction—before he played even one down.
There are also a few prisons where the sports programs are so off-the-wall that they could have been created only by rec directors with a finely honed sense of the absurd. Take the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Dannemora, N.Y. Though it's populated mostly by blacks and Puerto Ricans from New York City, Dannemora, which is 300 miles from Manhattan but only 20 from Canada, offers its urban inmates such winter sports as ice skating, downhill skiing, ski jumping and broomball (a version of ice hockey in which the players wear galoshes and wield brooms). A few years ago the prisoners could even attempt to kill themselves on a wild bobsled run they had constructed in the middle of the yard. If a sledder jumped the retaining fence, which happened often, he would fly headlong into the yard.
"It certainly provides entertainment," says Dannemora's renegade education supervisor, Tom Condon, chuckling about his winter program, which this year included an "Olympics," complete with medal ceremonies and free-world TV coverage. Despite the mirth, though, Dannemora—home until recently of David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz, among other bad dudes—is no Aspen. "We are max, max, max," says Condon. "This isn't a camp on the side of a mountain."
Oklahoma is one of only three states that still run a prison rodeo, and you can imagine the recklessness of long-term cons atop bucking broncos. In September, 12 of the 13 Oklahoma prisons sent teams to the state pen in McAlester to compete in 11 events, the wildest of which was a little number called the Mad Scramble. In it, a $100 bill is tied to the horn of a Brahma bull, and the cons try to get it any way they can. Inmates routinely get trampled going after the cash, which shows what men will do when they've got nothing to lose. But is this sport? Inmate Kenneth Palmer, one of last year's entrants, says the thrill of the event is like the kick he got from crime. "That's more or less why I'm in here," he says. "I didn't rob houses for the money. I did it for the excitement."
If prisons are warehouses for men with shattered dreams, then the busted hopes of athletes who blew their chance for success are among the saddest shards. Leroy Fowler, a pale, lank, 6'4", 40-year-old with graying hair, is incarcerated at the Montgomery Correctional Institution in Mt. Vernon, Ga., where he's serving eight years for assault. He has been in and out of prison since he was arrested for car theft at 16, and, as he says, "I realize I've wasted my life."
What Fowler also has wasted is his amazing right arm. At one time it was a rifle, a flame-throwing catapult. During his first stint in prison, at the Georgia Training and Development Center in Buford, Fowler got a chance to go to an Atlanta Braves game as a trustee with Billy Shaw, a guard who also coached the prison baseball team. When they returned to Buford, Fowler told Shaw that he had a better fastball than anybody he had seen that night, and Shaw couldn't disagree. Fowler had a slider and an overhand curve in addition to what's reputed to have been a 95-mph heater.
"Fast? Oh, yes sir!" says Shaw, who is now deputy warden, when he's asked about Fowler's arm. "Our team barnstormed all over the state back in 1966 and '67, playing Georgia Southern and a lot of semipro teams. We never lost but a couple of games, and Leroy pitched them all."
The Cardinals and the Dodgers expressed interest in Fowler and told him to call when he was released. Then, just four days before he was to be paroled, Fowler, who was 20 at the time, escaped with one of his buddies. Why? "I was young and stupid," says Fowler, realizing even as he speaks that what he did extends beyond stupidity to self-destruction.
Fowler and his pal stole a prison officer's car and drove to Atlanta, where they watched a Braves game. Six months later Fowler was recaptured, but he escaped again in 1971. This time he went to a Cincinnati Reds try-out in Marietta, Ga., where he used a false name and took his turn with the other pitching hopefuls. Fowler says now of the scouts, "I think they were interested in me. I got to bringin' it pretty hard. I pitched three innings, and they asked me to come back the next day." Unfortunately, somebody in the stands who had seen him pitch on the prison team, recognized him, and Fowler ducked out, left town and didn't return.
A year later, he was recaptured after taking a blast from a policeman's shotgun in the right arm. He was in the prison hospital for six days before undergoing surgery, and, as he lay there, Fowler asked himself if he was a failure because of fate or bad luck or ignorance or maybe because his arm was an arbitrary gift that made him hope for more than he deserved.
The injury cost him the use of his little finger and caused nerve damage in the ring finger. He rehabilitated the arm as well as he could, but he was through as a prospect. A prospect needs it all. Fowler is now a star on the inmate Softball team, a power hitter with a really good arm and one of those sad stories nobody wants to hear.
Sometimes Fowler thinks liquor may have been his undoing. "There's a lot of alcoholism in my family," he says, "and my granddaddy put a capful of liquor in my hand when I was six or seven. I believe if I had sought professional help for my drinking, I'd be in the major leagues."
He hangs his head meekly; his left eye is strangely bloodshot.
"Baseball is a game I dearly love," Fowler says. "I'd rather play the game than eat, even when I'm hungry. Our softball team practices three, maybe four times a week, and we're out playing pickup games every day during yard call. I get there about 4:30 and sometimes I'll stay out till eight. I don't even come in for dinner."
He knows, of course, that he can always make up for the missed meal with a big breakfast the next morning. Indeed, the burden of having to prove himself is gone for Fowler, as it is for most athletes in prison. And after you've talked to enough of these guys, you realize that the fear of having to deliver the goods on the outside is probably more terrifying than losing their talent behind bars.
And what is this place? Men and women in jogging suits and Reeboks walk leisurely along a wide asphalt path that meanders around a grassy, five-acre courtyard dotted with manicured flower beds. Large-windowed, two-story dormitories sit along the edges of the path. A group of middle-aged women wearing sunglasses and Walkmans move past with the rapid, purposeful gaits of serious walkers out for their daily constitutional.
This isn't a fitness spa. It's the Federal Correctional Institution at Pleasanton, Calif., home to 472 male and 217 female convicts. It's a place populated with bank robbers and drug dealers and white-collar types convicted of fraud. This is where Patty Hearst, heiress and Symbionese Liberation Army abductee, did her time. It is where Rita Lavelle, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency's toxic waste clean-up program who was convicted of lying to Congress, paid her debt to society. It is the crème de la crème of prisons, the country club of joints, where the living is so upscale that the annual commissary sales to inmates total a half million dollars. Small wonder that it, along with several other similar federal institutions, has earned the nickname Club Fed.
Outdoors the aptly named Pleasanton boasts a walking track, a running track, tennis and handball courts, a par course, a weightlifting area and a softball diamond. This Club Fed also has a covered basketball court, indoor game rooms and a movie room, where inmates recently watched The Untouchables. Convicts may use the facilities almost at will—to sit at the picnic tables and read, to get in shape, to think, to mingle with the opposite sex (but not to have sex), to prepare for the freedom of choice waiting for them on the outside. "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," wrote Dostoyevsky. If that's so, Pleasanton makes America look very civilized, indeed.
As he walks about the sunlit grounds, associate warden Gary Driver says, "This is a very calm place. It looks pleasant, and the people respond better because of that." He goes past the dorms and gestures to where a large, roped-off area has been leveled and seeded with grass; it will be Pleasanton's new softball field. Nearby, inmates pump iron while others jog or queue up for tennis. There's a double chain-link and razor-wire fence surrounding this prison, and the two-man cells are as tiny and joyless as most. And yet something seems askew here; it's weird to hear the thump of tennis balls at a place where people are sent to be punished.
Or does punishment have much to do with it anymore? Probably not. State and federal guidelines rule out most of the old abuses of prisoners (though taking away someone's freedom, in itself, surely qualifies as punishment). Nor is rehabilitation a real goal of most prisons these days. Too complicated. So what about penance? Is it too much to ask for a little of that?
Driver smiles slightly. He has defended his system before. "Our duty is to remove these people from society, which has been done," he says. "After that, there's no need to make things worse for the inmates. The sentencing process itself is traumatic enough. This isn't like home, remember. Inmates don't have free access to the phone, they can't eat whenever they want. In fact, it can be frustrating to prisoners, because it's very pretty in here, and there's freedom of choice and wonderful recreation facilities. But it's still very much a prison."
Unfortunately, most prisons don't have enough money to run sports programs as sophisticated as Pleasanton's. At state prisons it's common for all recreational activities, including crafts and music as well as sports, to be funded by proceeds from the inmate-run canteen, and a $50,000-a-year budget is considered lavish. Still, the National Correctional Recreation Association (NCRA), an underfunded nonprofit organization that serves as the athletic clearing house for more than 200 prisons, clings to the idealism of its stated goal of raising "inmate morale by providing healthy activity which may help engender socially acceptable attitudes and conduct among the men, and to arouse the interest of the inmates in recreation to an extent that they will continue this type of activity following their release from prison."
In other words, the NCRA would like prisoners to play sports, stay calm and remain that way once they get out. Wouldn't we all? A single prison riot, such as the one at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Sante Fe in 1980 that cost 33 inmates their lives and caused $19 million damage, can justify a lot of peacekeeping recreation programs. But though sports may be great for keeping things cool inside, do the fundamentals of teamwork and winning and losing with grace carry over to the real world? Nobody knows.
James Brown, the recreation director at the state prison in Jackson, Ga., says, "Very rarely do these guys change, and even if they do, it's nothing drastic. And they sure won't change overnight just because they're playing basketball."
But David Montgomery, an NCRA official and recreation supervisor at the Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington, Ky., thinks otherwise. "What the inmates have to do is play with a purpose," he says. "Statistics show that over 80 percent of all crimes were committed during the criminal's leisure time. Idleness, as they say, is the devil's workshop. So we need to give them something they can do during leisure time on the outside other than drink and take drugs.
"Even for the bad guys, the ones on Death Row, sports is a constructive outlet. Why should we care about them? Because even they sometimes are released. An inmate named Tom Scott was a cop killer on Death Row here, but now he's out. He served about 12 years, and now he's got a college degree and works as an artist in California. What kept him going was art—and playing a lot of handball."
One has to wonder how the families of murder victims and the targets of other brutal crimes feel about the perpetrators shooting baskets and playing billiards or boccie while serving time. If prisons are for retribution, then clearly inmates should not play ball. But retribution, we are learning, is archaic. "Management" is the corrections buzzword these days. And "thrift." There's even talk of confining convicts to their homes, of never putting them behind bars at all, to save money.
At this point, it may be reassuring to learn that federal inmates who escape too often or who demonstrate a "history of violence, institutional misconduct and predatory behavior" get sent to the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill. All federal prisons are rated on a security scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most secure. All of them, that is, except Marion, which is alone at Level 6. Marion is bad news. It is said to be escape-proof. Most of the inmates are on "lockdown" 22 hours a day; cameras monitor the prisoners throughout the institution. The fact that the inmates' athletic activity is severely limited must surely, in itself, be a form of hell.
For an interview at a San Diego restaurant, Thomas (Hammer) Longnecker and his wife, Susie, arrive in their well-worn station wagon, which seems funny because this isn't the way a very large, tattooed, bearded, shaved-headed Hell's Angel is expected to travel.
But, then, Longnecker, 41, is full of surprises. He's six-feet, 260 pounds, and he's got a couple of choppers at home, but he also is literate and well-read, with a degree from Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y. Tonight he drinks fruit juice rather than alcohol, because he cares about his health. Beyond that, he's a two-time loser who has recently been released after serving 2½ years on a drug rap at the Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla.
There Longnecker worked closely with prison recreation supervisor Ricky McIntosh, and he's credited with having started up El Reno's flag football program. McIntosh is also a huge, muscular man and a leader in the development of high-quality U.S. prison sports programs. Of Longnecker, he says, "He's a good man."
But Longnecker is also a violent man, or rather, a man who seeks out violent collisions in life and smiles at them. At El Reno, he went from cell block to cell block selling his football concept, and when he finally had enough men signed up to play—and after he and fellow Angel Robert (Red Dog) Redman had pilfered enough things to build goalposts and groom the field—Longnecker made himself one team's center and reveled in knocking heads in the trenches.
"Football is the greatest sport that ever lived," Longnecker says with feeling. He had played the game as a younger man, in the Army and then as a semipro, before he joined a prison team during his first stretch inside, at the California state prison at Chino. During her phone calls to El Reno, Susie found out how much Henry missed the sport.
"He was a different man as he prepared for and then played prison football," she says. "He was...happy. I always said he went back in because he couldn't play on the outside."
Like many prisoners who play sports, Longnecker started out lifting weights. "If I hadn't been able to lift, I wouldn't have had any way to relieve my tensions," he says.
And if he couldn't relieve his tensions?
"Somebody would get hurt." He shrugs at the logical simplicity of what he has said. "It's not just me," he continues. "I was in a riot at Chino that started because there weren't enough weights to go around. There was a waiting line, and tension built up over waiting to get to the weight pile so you could lose that tension by lifting weights. It was a paradoxical situation. What every prison needs is more equipment, like they have at El Reno. That's what McIntosh did. That place has tons of weight. I mean, literally, you measure it in tons."
McIntosh stands gazing proudly out at the 10-acre athletic complex in the vast El Reno yard. This is the largest and probably best-organized prison rec facility in the country. Nearly a thousand inmates engage in everything from basketball to soccer, with scarcely a guard visible. This is where Longnecker frolicked, and inmates still remember him fondly. Red Dog pushes his pony tail aside and reflects on his biker buddy: "I don't think he would have stayed here longer just to play—but he'd have thought about it."
McIntosh strides into the immaculate El Reno gym and points out the glass backboards, the snap-back rims, the bleachers and the electric scoreboard. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he says. He's the king here, and, given his size, that role suits him well.
Intramural teams are playing hoops, one after the other in an unbroken stream of competition. There are guys with bizarre hairdos and earrings and hideous tattoos, but there are no rough fouls and no one argues with the referees, who are also inmates. "They know if they fight they get locked up," says McIntosh. "On the street the rules change. But in here they like it if you lay down the rules." He shrugs and smiles. "It's a funny little web."
It is, indeed. Following the rules equals freedom in a place that exists only to deprive you of your freedom. A contradiction to rival anything from Orwell's Brave New World, but at the moment, deep inside the basement rec area of the state prison in Stillwater, it's difficult to ponder such things while a man with pumped-up arms is staring at you hard enough to give you the chills. As it turns out, the man is in prison for executing three people in a drug deal, binding them with wire and then shooting each in the head. And he feels no remorse.
"You assault a guard, you get a year in solitary," says guard Jim Foster, who watches the man walk away slowly, perhaps to the weight room. Like all guards at maximum security prisons, Foster is unarmed. "Solitary's a strong deterent. But it would be safer, I suppose, if a guy like that didn't build himself up."
Three Stillwater guards talk at the control station. Near them is a broken Fussball table. It has been out of action since inmates ripped out the rods that move the little soccer players and made swords out of them. The guards mention a convict who got out last year, a guy who had killed somebody and then, they say, eaten his heart. "He killed his parole officer after that and they found the victim's fingers in his pocket," says one of the guards. "Part of a cult."
Even with sports, you think, you could not do time. You know that now.
The guards talk about the prison's "varsity" basketball team, which played a free-world team in a league game last night in the upstairs gym. One of the inmate players is pretty good and has told people he wants to try out for the new NBA Minnesota Timberwolves when he's freed. Foster shakes his head. "He'll be back," he says. "A lot of these guys like it here. It's as easy as being on the streets, probably easier. The authorities ring a bell, tell you what to do. Eat a meal, play basketball."
"Doing time is just part of their job," agrees guard Brad McCulloch.
Such cynicism is well-founded. Data recently compiled by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 80% of all state prisoners are recidivists and that 52.5% have a record of both recidivism and violent crime.
Robert Taliaferro, 33, sits in the office of the Stillwater penitentiary newspaper, The Mirror, and darkly ponders the question of the role of sports in prison. Taliaferro, who's serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, is the editor of The Mirror, a weekly that's the oldest continuously published prison paper in the U.S., and one of the best. The paper, which was founded in 1887 with a $50 contribution from the Younger brothers—Coleman, James, John and Robert, members of Jesse James's gang—has as its motto, "It's never too late to mend." a sentiment with which Taliaferro agrees. But he isn't sure how valuable sports are to that mending process.
"I have a policy I go by." he says. "I give sports two pages. A lot of people might not read the paper if I didn't include sports, and I want them to read it. We at the paper want inmates to leave and stay out. so what we push are educational programs."
Taliaferro's sportswriter. rapist Jahi Pili Sadiki, won't talk to members of the free-world press, but his articles speak well for him. combining, as they do. a kind of industriousness and flinty honesty that is intriguing. But Sadiki must battle his editor's reservations about sports every time he writes a piece.
Says Taliaferro, who is 6'7" and could pass for a veteran NBA guard: "My problem is a lot of guys in here want to be superstars, and I say. 'If you were superstars, you wouldn't be in prison.' Even in here, an athlete will start to believe his headlines. You know what happens? A guy leaves and two months later he's back. He'll get the hugs and handshakes from his old pals, and he's back into the groove.
"So now if we start running too many stories saying how good a team is. I'll ice the next one that comes along, or I'll tone it down. If a guy's name is in the paper too much. I'll tell Sadiki to take it out. I don't want any more inmates with unreal dreams. I mean, I am the editor."
There are nearly 900,000 men and women in federal and state prisons and county and city jails in the U.S. The number has increased every year since 1973. and some experts are guessing the number will double in the next 10 years and then double again early in the next century. There are currently 3.2 million U.S. adults under some form of correctional supervision, be it probation, parole or imprisonment. That's one out of every 55 U.S. residents 18 or older.
America has a big problem here. And if sport isn't the solution—or. at least, part of it—law-abiding citizens better hope it can buy us some time until one comes along.
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