Among prisoners, one rare sport is often used to find euphoric relief: a good ol’ game of handball. On the handball court, skilled players test out their hand-eye coordination, beating a little blue ball up against the prison’s batter-yellow painted wall.
The game calls for agility, intensity, and the rhythm of an orchestral musician. One has to be in sync with their partner; a good player must develop a sense of timing — the instinct to slide out of the way when the small blue ball speeds back after their partner slaps it back towards the wall. It is a continual dance — one must be light on their feet to avoid bumping into their partner or competitors.
Jeff Williams earned the nickname “Spiderman” for his active form of play. “He’s a good partner to have,” B. McClelland says of his handball partner. The two sometimes compete in tournaments together. Williams’ dedication to the game drives him to dive onto the concrete ground to make a play — like Spiderman, he puts his body wherever it needs to be to beat the competition.
“It’s full dedication, like a dog after a bone,” Williams’ says. He learned how to play handball in prison 26 years ago, and soon realized it was something that he was good at.
American handball, also referred to as “wall ball,” is played by two to four players who use their hands to hit a small rubber ball against a wall. The objective is to keep opponents from returning or striking the ball as it comes off the wall, which helps to generate points. If the ball touches the ground twice or is hit out of bounds, that team loses a point to the opposing team.
“In order to be successful here, you have to know how to play with both hands,” said Eric Post, who ran most of the handball tournaments on behalf of the prison, but has since paroled.
Many people may not consider how a healthy body and mind can help reform and transform a former criminal into a productive citizen. Many incarcerated people gravitate toward handball as a stress relieving activity and a method of self-improvement.
“It’s all about change,” said Williams. “We aren’t who we were when we committed our crimes. Part of that change is finding our humanity and that comes from coming together to play by the rules, and from having fun.”
The diversity on the court is also powerful and unusual in the normally segregated world of prison. But here, all that matters is who will win the game. “Whenever I’m having a bad day at work or dealing with someone in the building, coming out to play handball allows me to wind down and decompress with a group of guys where the color of the skin does not exist,” says handball player Francisco Ortez.
Trayvon, whose pronouns are her/she/hers, is one of several transgender handball players. “Handball here at San Quentin has been no different than any other prison I’ve been in,” she says. “There are no biases against any transgender here, and I feel safe playing with the guys.”
The first recognized game of striking a ball against a wall using a hand [an early version of handball] was in Scotland in 1427, according to Wikipedia. In the United States, the first recorded game of handball played was in San Francisco in 1873. In the early 1900’s, four-wall handball was developed in New York.
Like other sports, Handball in prison can provide transferable skills such as improved decision-making and positive social interactions, as well as how to successfully cope with change.
In a study called, “Understanding Recreation and Sport as a Rehabilitative Tool” (2002), the researchers ask: How can you follow the rules and win? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses and how can you correct them? How can you use your resources with the rules of the game? How can you develop a “win-win” relationship? Can you be more assertive to meet your needs in an appropriate way?
Maybe the slapping of a small blue rubber ball against a wall can keep the incarcerated from hitting the proverbial wall themselves. Finding camaraderie while hustling back and forth on the court helps provide a pathway forward.
“Not only do I play for the exercise, but playing is therapeutic,” says SQ resident Walter Sprafka, who notes that the game helps him make good decisions and practice conflict resolution. “Hand ball is non-judgmental, and it brings me in harmony with other people.”