Third Place Writing – Sports


Playing for time in the big house

Originally published in the Daily Iowan

Bryan McDaniel takes off at a dead sprint with the football. He feints right, spins back left, and momentarily escapes a defender. Boxed in, he dives for the first-down marker, but an opponent snatches the flag dangling from McDaniel’s blue jeans.

He’s down.

With ball outstretched and chained by gravity to the dirt, the quarterback’s head turns to the sideline marker – first down.

“Built Ford tough,” he hollers, scrambling to his feet and plucking his shirt away from his chest. He turns his back to the defense, ready for another snap.

The 33-year-old anticipates many more plays here in Anamosa State Penitentiary’s yard. McDaniel is serving a 75-year sentence for murder. Many convicted killers, rapists, and robbers are milling about the sidelines, behind the milk jugs marking every 15 yards of the field. Some men are waiting to sub; others are just thirsty for entertainment.

Anamosa is one of the nine state prisons in Iowa, all of which offer convicts sports, according to the Department of Corrections.

Taxpayers may wonder why they should pay for prison tennis courts when they can’t afford the luxury for themselves. Victims and survivors can struggle with the options offenders enjoy, especially those they view as superfluous, such as foosball or table tennis. And even experts must speculate whether athletics actually affect criminal tendencies.

Yet those same experts tout sports’ psychological, physical, and social effects, and corrections’ officers say recreation occupies inmates’ idle time and releases aggression. Dean Craig, an activities specialist for 21 years at Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, is one of them.

“I’d rather have an inmate get upset about a Dear John letter and pump some iron than take it out on my face,” he said.

Most officials estimate at least half of inmates participate in athletics. At Anamosa, more than 200 “lifers” routinely roam the yard. But in the cocoon of competition, it’s easy to forget the setting is a medium/maximum security prison and not someone’s backyard.

Reality checks aren’t far from view.

A yellow paint stripe climbs the face of the wall, interrupted only by the numerals 25-7 – the barrier’s height. Razor wire and a security tower loom within a Hail Mary toss of play. The grass isn’t dead, but it’s not healthy. Dilapidated chalk markings and splotches of dirt, the kind that won’t yield when pressed with a strong foot, pit the field.

A gravel jogging path surrounds the action. Not far off sound the thuds and whacks of leather smacking pavement and flesh – a basketball court. An indoor gym, previously a boiler room, is used when the elements play too rough.

These are the conditions Anamosa’s inmates compete in.

Resetting the Clock

Prison sports aren’t a recent phenomenon. Anamosa’s website bears pictures of the facility’s baseball team, The Snappers, from the 1920s. The changes activities are undergoing are new, however.

From fiscal 2000-06, the Iowa Department of Corrections’ appropriations for recreation have increased by an annual average of 3.2 percent. The true cost of sports programs is difficult to calculate, however, because it’s grouped with music and craft activities as “recreation” in the budget. With a record number of convicts, though, the money doesn’t go as far as it used to.

Anamosa’s gym used to be open seven days a week but is down to five, recently retired activities’ specialist Mike Dooley said. Upon his departure, the venue closed for at least a week because of a lack of staffLong ago, the prison used to host regional weight-lifting competitions and shuttle outside offenders in for football. Now, its residents only play outsiders from the public in softball and basketball.

The space and time limitations aren’t likely to evaporate. Officials forecast an Iowa inmate increase of roughly 31 percent over the next decade, according to a Dec. 1 report by the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. Paul Stageberg, the primary author, says past forecasts typically overestimated increases because of later policy changes.

Yet he still expects a population jump because of factors such as recent legislation that extends the incarceration time of certain sexual offenders.

While the state’s prison population is expected to rise, spending on recreation supplies has steadily decreased. Other expenditures are also limited – in fiscal 2006, eight of the state’s nine facilities didn’t use taxpayer money to buy recreation equipment. Craig said except for major purchases, such as the renovation of a court, Mount Pleasant’s recreations are self-sustaining because of capital raised from a canteen program, which allows offenders to purchase novelties, funneling funds back into the prison.

Yet salaries and larger projects still require public money. Rep. Lance Horbach, the chairman of the Iowa House justice-system appropriations subcommittee and a self-described tough-on-crime guy, says prison sports are necessary not out of compassion for offenders but for the public.

“If you were to ask, ‘Should we provide more frills in Iowa prisons?,’ the vast majority of people would say, ‘No,’ ” the Tama Republican said. “They’d also say, ‘What the heck are you guys doing, releasing this guy from prison without helping anything?’ ”

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than any other country, the vast majority of whom aren’t locked up for life. Iowa’s system, according to the Department of Corrections’ daily updated web statistics, operates 22 percent over capacity – eight of the nine state prisons held more offenders than their theoretical limit.

The effect stretches many corrections’ divisions thin, and recreation is no exception.

Three years ago at Mount Pleasant, the men’s and women’s departments combined to staff eight recreations employees, officials say. Today, they use half that to manage both physical activity and hobby crafts – everything from punching bag workouts and organized card tournaments to leather working and pastel drawing.

For inmates, the cutbacks mean the gym is open two fewer hours a day.

For activities personnel, there’s more area to supervise with fewer sets of eyes. Craig estimates though 100 prisoners are frequently in the Mount Pleasant gym at once, bullying the punching bag or battling on the basketball court, 70 percent of the time it’s with no security personnel present. Often, just one activities staffer supervises.

“You’re more tense,” he said. “Kind of sitting on pins and needles, waiting for something to happen.”

Some wonder if sports aren’t making those pins sharper and the needles longer by bulking up offenders. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates two out of every three people released from prison are rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years, and almost half of those released are reconvicted. So what’s the point of allowing criminals to get bigger, faster, and tougher for the next cop to subdue?

“He doesn’t have to be a 240-pound guy, all bulked and big and muscular,” said Barry Lyons, an activities employee at Mount Pleasant. “If his choice is a gun, he’s going to take a gun, whether he’s 120 pounds or 240 pounds.”

What’s more, offenders who really want to bulk up don’t need weights to do it – pushups and other weight-free exercises can more than accomplish the feat.

Some advocates for prison recreation argue a larger problem than administering strength-training, however, is the “us vs. them” mentality – often, the public perceives prisons as strictly punishment for crimes committed. Department of Corrections officers, however, stress the importance of therapeutic goals.

It’s easy to disdain prisoners’ acts and hope their problems vanish. But the out-of-sight-out-of-mind philosophy is unrealistic. Mount Pleasant treatment director Jay Nelson estimates “95-plus percent” of the offenders he oversees re-enter the community.

They’ll be back in-sight and in-mind, he adds, when they’re living across the street.

McDaniel, a father of three boys, says he was justifiably sent to prison, but others shouldn’t be too quick to judge and throw away the keys.

“[The public] forgets the fact that we’re human beings,” he said. “That we cry. We get lonely. We miss our families. When we see our kids come to visit, we are happy.

“They don’t see these things.”

Costs vs. Benefits

No comprehensive national studies have been undertaken to determine sports’ effect on recidivism rates.

The reasons are varied, experts say.

The public’s mentality of punishment over rehabilitation may strengthen political notions to get tough on crime, which endanger prison recreation altogether, and discourage costly studies, according to a 2005 article in The Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. It suggests recreation, if implemented with attention paid to individual offender needs, may prove to be a “critical and underutilized component of offender rehabilitation and subsequent reduced recidivism.” But that’s about as far branch as anyone ventures to assess long-term impact.

“I did an experimental study on strength-training adjunct therapy,” said D.J. Williams, a co-author of the article and professor at Idaho State University. “What we found was offenders who really wanted to exercise, and who were paired with the traditional treatment, produced better effects, a better outcome … and fewer relapses.”

Williams adds that recreation can benefit most prisoners and likely reduce recidivism rates – but only if used properly. Activities need to be tailored to the individual, for instance, even restricted in some cases, if offenders associate certain athletics with criminal activity, such as using drugs while hiking. Yet the researcher sees many more benefits than detriments in prison sports and says deciphering individual needs and treatment plans may be relatively cost-effective, if recreation staff work hand-in-hand with counselors.

Until a more complete study of the long-term effect is undertaken, however, prison sports provide their most concrete value as a convict-sitter and as an outlet for bottled-up aggression.

Opponents argue, however, those benefits come at the cost of coddling felons.

Brendin Hinman, a 22-year-old inmate who has been charged with felonies on at least three separate occasions since he was 15, says it’s not hard living in Mount Pleasant.

“Once you kind of become accustomed to the way of life – you know, there’s a lot of people out there who don’t really have nothing for them going,” he says. “They got three square meals here a day and a warm place to sleep, and they’re content with that. Me, I’ve grown accustomed to it …

“I don’t know why anybody would want to stay here,” he said. “But it doesn’t bother me to be here like it should. That’s probably a lot of the reason why I tend to come back.”

The Mount Pleasant building, which visitors reach via Lilac Lane, offers inmates darts, foosball, and Ping-Pong. Hinman says he’s found other Iowa institutions rougher.

But Anamosa, a partial-maximum security facility, offers 15 pay phones just an amble away from its football field. Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and Coke machines sit on the opposite face of the yard. When games conclude, inmates can purchase ice cream, pizza, or hot dogs.

“We could tighten the screws down and take all that away,” Dooley said. “But then, if you have a major riot, property gets destroyed, people get injured or killed, the same people are going to say, ‘My goodness, you’re too tough on those people. Look at what you cost us.’ ”

Dooley, in an office of trophies, softballs, weight pins, and a bookcase that includes Therapy in Motion, raps his knuckles on his desk. In activities for more than eight years, he says he’s never witnessed a brawl as the result of an in-prison sporting event.

Tenured inmates say the same thing.

Even prisoners acknowledge, though, that safety’s not always the point.

“How many upstanding citizens out there do you really believe would donate money to provide to people who have terrorized their neighborhoods, or sold dope to their kids, or touched their little kids?” Hinman says. “If I were a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen, I’d be like, ‘No, I’m not giving them nothing.’ ”

Athletics can improve physiological health, mental well-being, and social skills, experts say. Physical activity can benefit everyone from diabetics to the depressed – a significant aspect in prisons and jails, where more than half the inmates in the country suffer from mental-health problems, according to a Justice Department survey released in September.

Yet not everything’s different from free society. Trash talk crowds the air as much inside prison walls as out – a disputable call merits a “Ray Charles could have seen that” from the crowd during the Anamosa game – but a no-contact rule minimizes confrontations.

Officials insist violence isn’t commonplace. The theory is the cost is too great to inmates. Where ejections or suspensions might suffice in the outside world, the penalties are harsher inside penitentiaries’ walls. NBA referees can be quick to hand out technical fouls for choice words, but prison officials wield the power to kick inmates out of leagues altogether. Sports, besides just occupying idle time, control behavior.

“Again, knock on wood, we’ve never had a blowout on the athletics field,” said Dooley, who acknowledges having to eject half a dozen inmates a year for taking cheap shots. “It amazes me, as hot-tempered as some of these guys are … maybe get in each other’s face, but that’s about it.”

The Games Beyond The Games

“How much time?” yells an inmate.

“54 seconds,” responds Dooley, chancing a glance at the stopwatch dangling around his neck an instant before play resumes.

In a place where time seems to drag on forever, all these players want is a few more precious minutes. It’s almost halftime, and they’re stringing together a late-ditch drive – their only chance to survive this game.

Just like in any other backyard football contest, McDaniel sets up in the shotgun. His linemen ready for the snap. Unlike in backyard games, the quarterback’s protectors refuse to block. They squat and shuffle awkwardly into the paths of defenders, but their arms are locked firmly behind their backs. The yard’s no-contact policy mandates it.

The rule’s not completely unfair to the offense, however – defensive linemen can’t use their hands to blow by would-be-blockers. They’re dependent on quick feet to reach the quarterback before he throws. And when the signal-caller does find a receiver, hurdling opponents isn’t an option – jumping with the ball is outlawed.

“This [stuff] is like Pee-Wee football, man,” says one spectator.

The inmates want fewer rules and more options, not surprisingly. Some wish the environment would mirror Louisiana State Penitentiary, where offenders play full-contact football. But it’s not something coming to Iowa anytime soon.

“They must have a big medical bill,” Craig quipped.

There aren’t any rodeos in Iowa, either, as there are at Louisiana State. Activities personnel at Mount Pleasant are pushing to incorporate soccer. Basketball, with all its inherent incidental contact, is the toughest for most to supervise. Fort Dodge Correctional Facility reports offering horseshoes, shuffleboard, and badminton. Other local options are volleyball, softball, pickleball, Hooverball, weight lifting, and flag football.

At Anamosa, where defenders try to scramble by blockers in some bizarre limbless dance, seven sets of eyes watch the action more intently than the spectators. Dooley is one. The other six belong to a line judge, a scorekeeper, and four officials – all inmates.

The rules are familiar enough. Twenty-minute halves are subject to a running clock. A 40-point mercy decree tries to minimize blows to pride. Squads of a dozen or so players sub in and out to spell each other. Not everything’s familiar, though.

A referee blows his whistle.

“False start,” he says, turning his hands over one another and signaling to the offense. “Double zero.”

Laughter erupts from the sideline, where many dozens of spectators are flouting the NO LOITERING and NO SMOKING signs stuck to the limestone walls.

“Who’s double zero?” one calls out.

In this game, to these hecklers, officials explain themselves.

“The man ain’t got no number on his shirt.”

Indeed, most play in jeans and tattered black and white cloth. Some of the athletes truly merit the label. Others look more like bookies than participants, wearing sunglasses and beards on the field of play, almost down to their potbellies.

In fact, some are bookies. Anamosa’s indoor basketball court used to house bleachers, where inmates could watch the action. But when offenders had something riding on the games and too many calls were blown, deliberately or not, fights broke out between “fans.” Eventually, officials decided to remove the stands and thus the opportunity for the financially involved to scuffle. But gambling still occurs.

“The security people here know that. The inmates know that we know that,” Dooley says. “We’re never going to squelch that. It’s just like underage drinking and smoking on the outside. We know it goes on, and the police, security force, knows it goes on, and they’re battling it all the time to keep it under control.”

Staffers walk a narrow line, trying to keep inmates in check while still allowing them to blow off steam safely. That line may be growing even finer at Mount Pleasant, where a recent program pits prison staff against inmates in sports. The workers usually triumph in basketball. The convicts maintain the edge in softball.

The thought process behind the concept, according to Mount Pleasant activities specialist Marshall Cotton, is to get criminals to see supervisors as human beings, to increase morale, and to increase communication between the demographics.

Dooley, who says, at its core, his job is about “people management,” adds that as long as he respects inmates, they respect him. Cotton takes it a step further. He says he believes if a convict ever attacked or threatened him, other inmates might even come to his defense.

“If you’re scared,” he says, “you shouldn’t even be working in a prison. I’ll be honest with you. Because if [an inmate attack] is going to happen, it’s going to happen.”

Game Strategy

Of the nearly 1,000 men imprisoned in Mount Pleasant, Byron Griffin might be the strongest. He used to squat lift 675 pounds – the rough equivalent of two Shaquille O’Neals – and bench press 405. And he’s smart as well. Griffin, convicted of second-degree sexual abuse, throws around such words as “kinesiology” and “endoskeleton” as easily as he does weight plates and says he was a software developer on the outside.

He believes many offenders have never been in an atmosphere where they can achieve and be recognized. When they arrive in prison, a decent ability in sport allows them to excel. They’re picked first in team drafts. They’re praised by teammates for on-field or on-court accomplishments. In short, he believes, they get to be a big fish in a small pond, and the status may be so attractive it tempts some back to prison upon release; directly the opposite effect on recidivism advocates hope for.

The question that theory demands is why not be a big fish in a big pond?

“The thing about that is, out there in the real world, it’s not a pond anymore,” the prisoner said. “It’s an ocean. So we all know that average-to-small-sized fish don’t last very long in the ocean, especially if the fish has never been trained properly to adapt to its environment.

“If you kept a beta fish for three years in your house and its last year of life you try to throw it back out to the water, it’d have no idea what to do. The fish is going to be eaten.”

Some inmates think the theory is bogus.

“I would rather pay taxes,” Hinman said. “I’ve never paid taxes.”

But even some experts and activities personnel agree with its premise. The recognition many convicts experience in prison is harder to collect in free society.

“The guys you see back four or five times,” said Craig while supervising basketball, “they’re good in every sport.”

A definite conclusion can’t be reached until a comprehensive study is conducted.

Williams, who has spent a decade studying prison recreation, leisure science, exercise sports science, and related fields, says that likely won’t happen until the public stops perceiving prisons as primarily a place of punishment and starts focusing on the goal of rehabilitation.

Until then, prison sports’ main benefit will continue to be as a time occupier and relief for prisoner aggression.

“When they don’t get that relief, a big, major explosion arises in here, and that’s what we all kind of guard against,” Dooley says. “The old saying, or joke, or what have you, is that a lot of these guys, staff, security staff, don’t get paid for what they do but for what they might have to do.”

Back in the yard of Anamosa State Penitentiary, the final flag’s been dragged off. Inmates are ambling off the field, and one of the defeated passes Dooley.

“Next season, right?” the employee asks amiably.

The inmate forces a small half-smile, like he’s tasted something bitter.

“I’ll still be here,” he said. He swallows the smile, turns, and walks away.