SI Vault
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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When you play ball in prison
You're always on the home team
—Anonymous Inmate

In a world where the only constant is change, sports represent a function of society in which change is deliberately retarded—life recast closer to the heart's desire. We control the odds, we make the rules, we tame and housebreak chance and circumstance. No radical philosopher rises to cite the historical necessity for the 10-inning game. No team is likely to emulate The Living Theatre and move the contest into the stands. The rules are absolute—no exceptions, no mitigations—and ambiguity is banished. For a while we escape from the larger game that shades failure, numbs victory and robs joy of its certainty.

If this is true in the outside world, it is true to the 10th power for men confined in the sterile methodology of a modern prison, where sports become a magnificent obsession.

I entered prison at 18. It's a shock that can't be fully conveyed. The shaft is driven home when you are stripped of your own clothes and you see them as if they were a discarded skin. Naked, dazed with a sense of loss, you are handed a new uniform identity. You are invited to become an institutional zombie.

This institution was in the West and today would be called a "cold-water" prison. Built largely before the turn of the century, it was overcrowded and understaffed. Two prisoners were stuffed into each small cell and there weren't jobs to go around. But once the walls are up, and you're behind them, all prisons are much the same. Their function is their essence. Places where you are forced to waste a portion of your life. Despite modern rehabilitative tools, this is what you do in prison. It's probably what you will always do. Hockey players chained in the penalty box while the game goes on.

My own interest in sports was modest. I had played street games with enthusiasm, but I was more noted for spirit than style, and indifferent coordination dampened any dreams of athletic glory. My interest in organized sports was slender, but I knew Harry Greb was the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who ever lived (still a good 20 years before Sugar Ray claimed this unofficial title) and I knew Babe Ruth ate a lot of hot dogs.

The prison administrators encouraged an active interest in games. The inmate who enjoyed hitting a ball was less likely to hit a guard, they reasoned. The man who bets a few cigarettes on the World Series was less likely to bet his life trying to climb the wall.

But we "fish" knew little of this when we were gathered together and ordered to play softball. New arrivals at any prison are quarantined until they are found to be free of infectious diseases and any tendency toward overt perversion. Despite our outer conformity, we were spiritually as motley as any crew swept up by a press gang. At 18 I was youngest, and to my chagrin instantly dubbed The Kid. My polar mate was an ancient of 62 nicknamed Steamboat because of the shuffling quality of his locomotion. Between Steamboat and myself we bracketed most of the ages and crimes of man, a fair microcosm of any prison population, and most of us were glad of the chance to play softball—even under orders.

We were in the charge of Sergeant Gump, so called because of a generous nose and meager chin that made him look like the cartoon character Andy Gump. His true name was Carpenter, and it was a standing joke to send new fish to address him respectfully as "Sergeant Gump." I was one such innocent, but he took it reasonably well. His eyes snapped with annoyance and he looked around a moment to see if anybody nearby showed the suspicion of a smile before he told me, "It's Carpenter, young man. Sergeant Carpenter." But convict humor is as relentless as it is perverse and he could say "Carpenter" forever and he would still be Sergeant Gump.

Sergeant Gump looked us over for leadership potential and picked two men who had managed to maintain some appearance of health and self-confidence. They would be team captains and choose sides. Naturally they chose their own friends first. Moments before, we had all been equals, united in the security of total failure. Suddenly we were once again classified, spread between the first picks and the last, while the old or clearly feeble were siphoned off as umpires. It was important to me to be chosen—I was afraid I was going to be given some mascot position like bat boy. But I was picked in the comfortable middle of the lottery. Those picked last griped defensively: "I killed seven men in Mississippi with my bare hands...what do I care for some lousy ball game?"

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