SI Vault
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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"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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