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.