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Malcolm Braly
August 10, 1970
For a man doing time on the yard, sports offer a touch of normality and tangible contact with his life outside. In short, the con who plays inside stays inside—at least until the end of his sentence
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August 10, 1970

Prison Games And Other Escapes

For a man doing time on the yard, sports offer a touch of normality and tangible contact with his life outside. In short, the con who plays inside stays inside—at least until the end of his sentence

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But we all did care. We played ball as if the losers were going to catch life while the winners were granted immediate paroles. And the umpires, our shipmates of moments before, began to receive savage abuse. And they, drunks and derelicts, victims of a dozen corrosive failures, took to authority as if born to it. Easier to reverse the Supreme Court than a called third strike.

Steamboat was installed as first-base coach and, since he coached both teams with the same cracked enthusiasm, his influence was safely canceled out. The game was a good one. The pitchers were content to get the ball over the plate and hope for the best. Several long-ball hitters emerged, and the score teetered back and forth into the seventh inning, when the game was called for lockup.

My team won by a single run and I went to my cell with a flush of victory. When the door slammed, the letdown was sudden and complete, but I had learned something about doing time.

A big prison usually has an athletic program as large and diversified as any major college. True, its scouts are the police, and the alumni are rarely heard from, but, in a sense, there are scholarships for star athletes.

Sports inside are apt to maintain the same characteristics as sports outside. Track is of minor interest (except among a few of the prison wits, who persist in volunteering for the mythical cross-country team) and the meets are poorly attended, even by men desperate for diversion. The gut sports, as elsewhere, are boxing, baseball, football and, to a lesser degree, basketball. Tennis is as somehow upper-class in jail as it is outside. We had several courts hidden away in the hospital recreation yard, where the regular, raggedy, main-line convict is out of bounds, and the sight of the hospital orderlies and lab techs walking across the big yard all in white with tennis rackets under their arms was as riveting as if they were from Andromeda.

But if slum and ghetto and small-town kids have little chance to learn their way around a tennis court, many of them are wizards at handball. Handball is popular in prison for the same reason it is popular in the streets of deprived areas—all you need is a tennis ball and a wall to knock it against. Also it is the only sport that retains a definite national cast—the Mexican-American prisoners are the handball masters, and one of the first stops for any Chicano entering a Western prison is the handball court, where he can collect and dispense gossip.

When I entered the general population I took up handball myself, and in time even learned to score in Spanish. There was a particular problem on the handball courts that will help to illustrate an underlying condition of prison athletics. The courts are marked off on the side of the license-plate factory, and the factory roof, close to the prison wall, is beyond the dead line. Sooner or later all the handballs were knocked to the roof, and anyone trying to retrieve them stood a good chance of being shot.

Periodically, a guard with nothing better to do would harvest this crop of lost balls, and if you happened to be standing around the courts at the time you called up to him he might toss you down a ball or two, like a noblewoman dispensing the dole. But most of the balls were returned to the gym office, where they came into the hands of the inmate clerks, who sold them. Three balls for a pack of smokes. They sold the same balls over and over, which put them in a unique retail position.

The gym clerks have considerable control over the sports programs. No one can stop you if you want to go down to the recreation yard on a Saturday afternoon and pitch a few horseshoes, but if you want an assignment to night gym and entrée to the major athletic programs you must deal with these powerful inmates. The gym quotas are fixed, the facilities will handle only so many, so there's a waiting list. It's your position on this list that's for sale. In our case, you dealt with Fat Charles, a superconvict, sleek, supremely well fed, always freshly shaved, barbered and smelling of Royal Lime. Fat Charles was the gym program. For a bribe of several cartons of smokes he would advance you to the top of the night gym list, sparing you months of waiting.

It's worth noting that a carton of cigarettes was the equivalent of around $50, since it represented one-tenth of your fixed maximum monthly income. Few cons had this kind of resource, so getting to the gym frequently demanded a substantial sacrifice.

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