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"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.