Prison Sports From The Inside

A former federal inmate looks back on his 21 years of playing prison sports

Dec 29, 2015 at 2:53 PM ET

I watched the game intently. The gym at Federal Correctional Institution Gilmore was packed for playoff basketball. Monkey, a short gangbanger with long arms and a nasty handle, was raining threes.

“In yo mouth, cuz,” Monkey said after draining yet another rainbow three on Amin, a Muslim inmate.

“I ain’t your cuz, homeboy,” was Amin’s response.

“Then you my son, cuz,” Monkey said while strutting back down the court, thinking it was all good.

But in prison it’s never all good, not even when you’re playing a game. There are rules. Rule one: don’t jump out there. Rule two: don’t turn you back on your opponent. Monkey had violated on both accounts. Big mistake equating athletic prowess with the stature of a man, but dudes do it all the time in prison.

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Amin trotted up the court behind Monkey, wound up and sucker-punched him. Monkey went down and caught some stomps for good measure. There are no fair fights in prison. Only winners and losers.

The prison’s Muslim community was at the game, as were a rack of Monkey’s North Carolina and Blood homies. The crowd erupted and stormed the court. In prison, one-on-one fights don’t happen.

The referees, recreation corrections officers and players, with no affiliations to preserve, stepped to the side. I watched the scene unfold with the rest of the remaining crowd. Punches and kicks and bodies formed a swirl of violence. It only lasted a few minutes. Order was quickly restored as the prison’s riot squad joined the fray, throwing bodies to the side, separating the combatants and taking them to the hole for solitary.

The championship was cancelled that season. No victor declared. Just another byproduct of playing sports in prison.

The mentality inside is “If it ain’t rough, it ain’t right.” Dudes are playing for keeps. An argument during a game can escalate into a fight, a stabbing, anything. You have to be ready. Obviously, Monkey wasn’t.

It’s prison, and sports or no sports, the politics, alliances and affiliations that dictate convict’s lives all come into play. I know because I spent 21 years in federal prison. Soccer with the Mexicans, hooping with the brothers, and flag football and softball with everyone else. Every compound I was on, eight federal prisons in total, ran leagues. The talent, passion and skill were striking. The emotions hit every note from elation to heartbreak.

When you’re doing time, sports offer a break from the rigors and routines of life on the inside. I was pissed over the 25-year sentence I was dealt for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. Instead of lashing out at my fellow prisoners like so many do, playing sports became my vice to get rid of the negative energy I was feeling.

You’d be surprised to find out just how much of prison life revolves around the intramural sport leagues. Inmates watch the games, participate in them, bet on them, follow them, same as folks on the outside keep up with the NFL or NBA. You can always find some inmates posted up doing their best Stephen A. Smith impersonation.

The teams bring together different nationalities, races and even gangs. The leagues are organized and run by the recreation department to provide a sort of structure and positive activity. But prison sports still have their own codes and nuances.

I went into prison a young white kid from the suburbs and had to prove myself in the recreation yard. No one would pick me for free rec. I couldn’t get any run on the court. But once I showed my skills and proved I would fight if provoked, I earned my place. They called me “Soul Man.”

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Playing sports in prison means I’ve witnessed plenty of fights and been in a few myself. If someone disrespected you during a game the rule of thumb was to handle it afterwards. You don’t want to blow it up on the spot and put everything on front street like Amin did with Monkey. That fucks it up for everyone. You handle your beefs discreet and quiet like by taking it to the bathroom or back to a cell.

Example: I was playing middle linebacker and running the defensive schemes on a flag football team I was on at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Dix. We were blowing everyone out, but got caught up in the championship game. Our offense wasn’t scoring and our defense was getting run over by sweep plays.

I was trying to get the defense in order when one of the offensive standouts, who also played defensive back, ignored a scheme I called and blitzed from his corner spot. His man waltzed into the end zone uncovered. It was the touchdown that we lost by.

Everyone assumed that I called the blitz. I was irate. With my adrenaline pumping I called the dude out in front of the whole team for not following the scheme. He was mad, but took it all in stride until we got back to the unit. He called me into the bathroom. I had no choice but to take the invitation. Anything less would have called into question my manhood, something no one on the inside can afford.

We scuffled and he blacked my eye up real good. I ended up body-slamming him, but our coach broke it up before I could do any damage. I took the black eye in stride even when some of my homeboys tried to juice it up and get me to retaliate or make it a racial thing. It was all on me. I made my choice and I would have to live it down. As long as you fight, you can live it down. Cowards get played for chumps.

I had a lot of little issues like that, nothing too serious like getting stabbed over a basketball game, but it did happen. When dudes got mad I would always tell them to leave it in the game. It just wasn’t worth it to take disputes from a ball game back to the housing unit, where it could escalate into something more.

Still, prison sports were rough. The officiating was spotty and the intimidation factor was always there, especially when you were playing with gang members or shot callers, but I still enjoyed it. That was what I did with my time. For 18 years I went hard playing sports year-round. I slowed down a bit during my last three years. It was hard at 41-years-old to be out there competing with 20-somethings. Besides, I had earned my respect.

Respect in prison is often earned at the point of a shank, but I got mine on the playing fields. Going hard and not backing down led to recognition. The lessons learned—don’t give up, always keep fighting—still apply today, even on the outside. Especially on the outside.