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No prison in the U.S. is more famous than Sing Sing. Packed into 55 hillside acres overlooking the Hudson at Ossining, N.Y., Sing Sing is "the Big House," "Up the River" and the home of the electric chair. Guards with Thompson submachine guns man the 26 watchtowers atop the massive walls of this maximum-security prison, and the mind boggles at the thought of almost 2,000 Humphrey Bogarts and James Cagneys stirring restlessly in the yard below, waiting to put the strong arm on the warden and make the break. In truth, however, the inmates at Sing Sing are not stirring restlessly; instead, when the weather is fair, they are out in the yard playing baseball, softball, boccie and handball. Groups of men in gray trousers, shirts and caps gather silently in a corner, not to conspire but to lift weights or pitch horseshoes. The air is filled not with mumbled threats and groans but with exultant cries of "Attaboy, Louis!" and "Ringer!" The fact is, sports are a very big thing at Sing Sing and at many other prisons throughout the land. Indeed, prisons offer a rich and varied recreational fare that many colleges would find hard to match. For example:
At Dannemora on the northern edge of the Adirondacks, another New York State maximum-security prison, the big yard has a bobsled run in the winter, which is banked against the prison walls. Alongside the start of the bob run is a ski jump—facing inward, alas.
At Green Haven, another New York maximum-security prison, croquet is the absolute rage in the infirmary yard. "Don't play against one of those old guys," cautions a young inmate. "They know the field backwards."
At San Quentin in California prisoners can take part in 12 different sporting activities, ranging from chess to boxing. San Quentin boxers are quite proficient. Three years ago they defeated two alternate members of the U.S. Olympic team before it left for Tokyo.
The Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas is a member of the American Contract Bridge League. Once a year inmates hold a tournament to which outsiders are invited. One year a pair of inmates, bank robbers by trade, played a pair of guests, local bankers, and the foursome got along splendidly. Leavenworth also permits inmates to play bingo, with candy bars going to winners. For those who prefer golf, there is a miniature course on the grounds.
The federal pen in Atlanta, Ga. is one of 21 prisons having a National Baseball Congress umpire school. Residents taking the course must attend some 30 hours of classes, take a written examination and participate in at least 30 games without encountering sustained protest. "We look for men of integrity," says an inmate ump. "Being an umpire develops a man's personality, sharpens his wits and certainly broadens his perspective. It has given me better control over myself."
At Menard state prison in Illinois inmates chip in nickels and dimes to equip a Little League baseball team in nearby Chester. A few times during the season the youngsters come inside the walls to play, and when they do, says Ross Randolph, Illinois director of public safety, "The men applaud and cheer something tremendous."
In Texas 12 prisons in the state system play one another in baseball. The pennant winners in the northern and southern divisions meet in a best two-out-of-three-game "World Series." Ferguson prison has won for the last two years. Warden Kenneth Coleman gives much of the credit for the victories to inmate Hank Thompson, the former Giant third baseman, now doing 10 years for theft. Thompson is not in sharp enough condition to play himself, but, says Warden Coleman, "He's a big help to the kids as a coach. A lot of our winning the championship was due to his being able to talk baseball to the young inmates, getting them to think baseball and teaching them what to do with the ball when they get it."
Even bigger than baseball is the annual all-Texas prison rodeo held in October. Last year the rodeo netted more than $250,000, and the money was used to buy artificial legs, eyeglasses, false teeth, sports equipment, musical, religious and educational materials, television sets and holiday dinners, items considered vital to prison morale and health but not financed by the taxpayers. More than 600 cons apply each year for the chance to compete in the rodeo, which is considered one of the most exciting in its category because the prisoners ride and perform with such reckless abandon. The star of the show is Val Markovich, a clown. Because the fans expect it, Markovich wears a suit of black-and-white prison stripes instead of the prison's regular white cotton shirt and pants. Markovich is guaranteed star billing for some time; he is doing 99 years.
Besides participating in baseball, rodeos, boxing matches, bobsledding, boccie and bridge, convicts across the country also indulge in any number of other leisure-time endeavors. There are many prison newspapers and magazines (some of them inevitably named Time). There are prisoners who raise tropical fish and canaries in their cells, prisoners who tie flies and make toy boats.