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Rick Telander
October 17, 1988
For convicts, are athletics a form of rehabilitation, an outlet for excess energy or just a way to pass the time?
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October 17, 1988

Sports Behind The Walls

For convicts, are athletics a form of rehabilitation, an outlet for excess energy or just a way to pass the time?

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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."

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