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Tom Farrey

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 Sports behind bars
Prison official Greg Benjamin says prisoners need to stay in contact with the community.
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 Sports behind bars
McNeil warden Belinda Stewart says Charles Manson wasn't the only past notable inmate.
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 Sports behind bars
Stewart explains why outside teams are invited to the prison to play.
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 Sports behind bars
U.S. Rep. Bob Franks is more concerned with the feelings of the victims.
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 Sports behind bars
Grateford (Pa.) prison official Tony Wolf says sports is a pacifier.
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Tuesday, June 3
Locking up sports
By Tom Farrey

If you are one of those people clinging to the quaint notion that sports should offer something more than entertainment, that it should serve some noble purpose, that it should benefit society in some way, then you deserve to go to prison.

In my 13 years as a sports reporter, I have covered the Olympics, NBA Finals, World Cup and Super Bowl. I have watched Michael Jordan fake Bryon Russell out of his sneakers to seal a championship. I have choked on my breath as a blur named Carl Lewis shot past me in a Barcelona stadium. I have seen Omar Vizquel save a no-hitter for his pitcher with an indescribable one-handed catch and throw.

Online and on television this week, explore the debate over sports in prisons through Outside the Lines' presentation of "Sports Behind Bars."

ESPN television will air a one-hour show on the subject on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET. Among the features: rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the professional boxing debut of ex-con Keon Abad, and basketball at McNeil Island (Wash.).

Online, you can read more about the unique McNeil Island program this week, as ESPN.com revisits the 1995 Pacific magazine article by Tom Farrey. You can also vote in polls and sound off on issues related to prison sports.

Yet, nothing has been as pleasing as what I witnessed at the McNeil Island (Wash.) Correctional Center, where I was sent in 1995 to write a piece on prison basketball for Pacific Magazine, the Sunday magazine of The Seattle Times. There, the McNeil Island team played host to a new team of civilians each week in a local recreation league.

McNeil won the league every year, usually with ease. McNeil had some incredible athletes, and their opponents often were intimidated. Games were blowouts. But the inmates treasured those visits from the outsiders. Sports competition was their means for staying in touch with society -- a society many of them would someday re-enter.

"You're locked up here 24 hours a day," said Greg Benjamin, a recreation official who coached the McNeil team in '95 and has since moved up to being a Correctional Unit Supervisor. "I don't want to say that communicating with the public makes them feel human again, but that's what it does."

Nationwide, critics of funding for prison sports would say that inmates don't deserve to feel human, considering the joy they robbed of other humans. Eye for an eye, you know. They want vengeance, not recreation. And frankly, it would be hard for me to look into the face of a woman who was raped, or that of a father whose son was murdered, and argue with much passion that the guy who committed the crime deserves to shoot hoops.

At the same time, I know what I saw in prison. Sports was a tool of change.

When these people get out, I want them to know how to relate to people other than convicts. And I want them to have familiar, benign activities into which they can pour their restless energy.

"A large percentage of them are going to get out of here, and hopefully when they get out they'll be better people," Benjamin said. "People who are busy and have hobbies are less likely to return."

America is in the midst of a debate over the role of sports in prisons. Congress is considering the No Frills Prison Act, legislation that would eliminate weightlifting -- one of the most popular inmate activities -- in all federal and state prisons. Programs that allow sports competition against outside teams, like that at McNeil, are on the wane.

Why this debate, now? Matt Maranz, producer of the Outside the Lines television special "Sports Behind Bars," believes it symbolizes the mixed feelings that Americans have about the role of prisons in society. We still can't agree on whether people are behind bars for punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence, incapacitation -- or some hybrid thereof.

Prisoners at McNeil Island cherish the visits from outside basketball teams.
Personally, I cannot say I have sorted it all out myself. But it's worth thinking about, because the United States has the largest prison system on earth, with nearly two million Americans currently doing time. There aren't that many in the armed forces.

One of the segments in the Outside the Lines show is on the McNeil Island prison team that I wrote about four years ago. Certain things haven't changed since then. The team is as tough as ever, even though McNeil was downgraded from a medium- to a minimum-security prison and, due to the Pacific article, the competition has gotten better. Teams from as far as 75 miles away now call the prison, challenging the inmates to games.

Earlier this year McNeil lost its first game since 1995 -- by three points to a team that included former University of Washington players.

What has changed is the team now plays in a new gym (paid for by the inmates' Offender Betterment Fund, which draws on phone-company kickbacks on collect calls and other inmate-generated revenue sources). The roster also has turned over. When ESPN's cameras went to McNeil Island earlier this year, the only character from my original story that remained was Shedrick Dyson, an insecure, fast-talking inmate who always played with a touching note from his mother tucked into his impeccably maintained sneakers.

After serving five years for dealing crack cocaine, Dyson recently was released. If my math is correct, his boy is about 7 now -- and probably getting to know his dad as a free man for the first time. I don't know how you start a relationship like that, but perhaps father and son have a common place to begin, the basketball court.

For that, I'm glad.

Read Tom Farrey's original story on McNeil Island prison basketball this week on ESPN.com, which rolls the magazine-length article out in three parts beginning today. Farrey, now a senior writer with ESPN.com, can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com

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