Thanks to numerous volunteers and donations, San Quentin’s sports programs are thriving, despite severe budget cuts.
Recreation and physical education programs in California prisons are founded on six broad goals providing inmates opportunities for achievement through participation in a range of programs that promote the following:
- Physical activity
- Physical fitness and wellness
- Movement skills and movement knowledge
- Social development and interaction
- Self-image and self-realization
- Individual excellence
That’s the description included in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Operations Manual.
Prison sports and recreational programs are administered by the education departments within each institution – similar to the way interscholastic sports are provided and delivered by public schools. A recreation coordinator is on staff to oversee recreational scheduling, ensuring that departmental and institutional goals and requirements are met.
Budget reductions within the past fiscal year have resulted in major cuts in prison education statewide, including San Quentin’s Robert E. Burton Adult School. The cuts resulted in the layoffs of many teachers and extensive realignment of staff and educational programming.
Yet our sports programs seem to thrive. San Quentin has teams that play against outside competition in the following sports:
- Baseball (two teams)
- Basketball (two teams – unrestricted, and over 40)
- Flag football
Many people ask, “Why should prisoners be allowed to play sports when schools in the community are cutting sports programs?” The answer is there is no good reason why sports in the community should be cut at the expense of prison sports, but that’s not why they are being cut.
Furthermore, I know it’s true that most prison sports participants would give up playing and competing in the sports they enjoy if it meant that a deprived youth could participate in his stead.
SPORTS ARE NEEDED
Here is why I believe sports are necessary in prison.
Sports foster self-esteem. Low self-esteem is a big reason why people perpetrate the acts that cause them to end up in prison. People who don’t feel good about themselves generally don’t care much about others. Even moderate success in a sport can help increase self-esteem.
Sports help promote and maintain physical well-being. Physical activity reduces stress and strengthens muscles and bones, thereby leading to better mental and physical health. Healthy long-term inmates cost taxpayers less money due to reduced healthcare issues.
Sports also provide a necessary outlet and distraction for the spectators. Sports help the observer feel they are part of something bigger than themselves and a team’s success becomes their success. And heckling, as annoying and unsportsmanlike as it can be, provides the heckler with a sense of purpose as well as an outlet for built-up anger and stress.
Sports help people learn to interact with others. We are social creatures and sports provide many opportunities for positive interaction and socialization with others, very critical in a prison environment with so many ways of negatively channeling energy.
Team sports are integrated with people of different races, colors and creeds working as a team towards a common goal. People who do not get along in any other arena put their differences aside to participate in sports together. If it can be done in athletics it can be done in the workplace and in societal situations in general.
Additionally, interaction with players from the free outside teams can show inmates that when they are doing the right thing they can gain acceptance in the community. Furthermore, some contacts have led to employment upon parole, thereby potentially reducing recidivism.
Sports also include more than just players. Referees and umpires, equipment personnel, scorekeepers and scoreboard operators, and others are vital parts of the teams and are given a sense of belonging.
Sports are a privilege, not a right. Persons who are disciplinary problems and/or safety or security concerns in the prisons are not permitted to participate in team sports. These activities must serve a higher purpose or they are irrelevant and should be cut. When players grumble and complain about their coaches, teammates, and playing time they are removed from the teams. Sports teach conformity to rules and discipline.
FUNDED BY DONATIONS
Before anyone thinks this must be costing the State of California millions of dollars and causing the budget deficit, read on.
Team sports in San Quentin are funded by donations from various agencies around the Bay Area and are staffed and coached by volunteers from the surrounding communities, and inmates. Equipment and uniforms have been donated by local professional sports teams, church groups and other sources.
No additional paid staff is required to supervise any sporting or recreational activity occurring within the prison. The only monetary outlay by the State for sports and recreation, aside from the salary for the recreation coordinator, is for the purchase of various small items to provide for those who are unable or not inclined to participate in the team sports.
For the 2010-11 fiscal year the expected outlay for this equipment is $7,042.91. During the past fiscal year nearly 16,000 inmates passed through or are currently housed at San Quentin. This works out to a sports and recreation expenditure of less than 50 cents per inmate, which includes the General Population, Condemned Row, the Reception Center, and specialized housing units.
RISE ABOVE IT
Sports are fun. In my opinion, nobody, anywhere, should have to be miserable. Life is too short. Prison sentences are long, and in most cases, including mine, deservedly so. Removal from society and separation from loved ones is hard and is more punishment than most people realize. Prison can be mind-numbingly dull, noisy, dirty, and generally unpleasant. I’m certainly not complaining, just observing. There is plenty of extra punishment for those not willing to conform. I know many people believe that is all prison should be, and they are certainly entitled to that opinion.
Many men in prison manage to rise above the adversity and get college degrees, complete self-help programs, earn GED certificates and high school diplomas, obtain vocational certification, learn to play musical instruments, paint, draw, write, and learn to play a variety of sports. Then they go out and become productive members of society. Sports, as well as other extra-curricular activities, help make a person well-rounded.
Approximately 85 percent of California prison inmates will one day be released back to society.
Ultimately, the question is: “If a parolee were to move in next to me, would I want him to have been dehumanized and locked away in a cage for years, or would I want someone who is a better man than when he went into prison?” Sports help contribute to that “better man.”