The Prison Leagues: Organized Sports in the US Penal System

The Prison Leagues: Organized Sports in the US Penal System


The prison system in the United States generates roughly $74 billion a year. The high turnover is due to the fact that over 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated. Since 1972, the number of people in US prisons has grown over 700% and now costs the taxpayer $39 billion to maintain every year.

With a population only slightly smaller than that of Iceland, Estonia and Cyprus combined, it’s not surprising that the US penal system has developed its own unique subculture. A vast black-market of goods and services has created a thriving underground economy. Prison staff and gang structures represent an established hierarchy with its own forms of conflict resolution. In essence, these institutions have become their own little society; and, not surprisingly, they have their own forms of entertainment.

While many people hear “correctional facility” immediately envision men lifting weights in the yard, you may be surprised to find out that there’s a wide range of athletic opportunities available in today’s penitentiaries. Prison league sports teams are one of the most popular ways that inmates occupy their time. Here’s what former inmate Seth Ferranti told Vocativ:

“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… 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.”

You might be surprised to learn that San Quentin State Prison has a popular baseball league, Englewood and Groveland have tennis courts, and Utah State Prison recently held their first marathon.

For youth offenders, basketball can offer a focus to help them straighten out their lives; but, for many long-term prisoners, these leagues are a valuable way to escape their daily troubles. According to Joycelyn M. Pollock, some correctional professionals view the ability to participate in healthy competition as an indicator of rehabilitation. And this isn’t a new phenomenon: Concord Reformatory in Massachusettes organized the first sports programs for prisoners back in 1886.

Whether participants or spectators, many prisoners engage with organized sports. Inside, gamblers take part in bookmaking operations called “tickets“. Inmates bet on the games, offering food items and drinks as collateral. When prisoners don’t have anything of value to offer, they’ll wager push-ups. The exchange of goods and services extends as far as your imagination; stolen food, stamps and a variety of contraband all serve as currency.

The prison leagues even have their own celebrities. “Pee Wee” Kirkland was originally drafted by the Chicago Bulls, but he turned down their offer down because he was making more money hustling on the street. After he was arrested a few years later, “Pee Wee” found himself playing in the Anthracite Basketball League, representing Lewisburg penitentiary.

Former AAU star and playground legend “Hook” Mitchell spent several year playing ball in San Luis Obispo’s California Men’s Colony. His story was so well known that there’s an entire documentary dedicated to it (“Hooked: The Legend of Hook Mitchell“, 2003).

You may even find professional athletes participating in the games. While serving time, Michael Vick stayed in shape by playing football with other prisoners. Allen Iverson, JR Smith and Plaxico Burress are just a few of the notable athletes who have spent part of their career in jail.

For some, prison leagues can even be a valuable training ground. Lee Benson, arguably one of the best players in the CBA history, credits the development of his mid-range game to the years he spent playing on prison teams in Ohio.

Unfortunately, some officials believe that recreational activities have no place in prisons. Back in 1998, Wayne Garner of the Georgia Department of Corrections voiced his opposition to organized sports.

“Number one, a prison needs to be a place they want to get out of and don’t want to come back to,” said Garner. “If it’s not more difficult in prison than it is out, you’re beating your head against the wall in the effort against (repeat offenders).”

Though Garner no longer works for the Department of Corrections (he was elected Mayor of Carrollton in 2003), the threat still looms overhead. If programs like these disappear, we could be robbing the next Lee Benson of his future.

If prison is truly about rehabilitation, then it’s important for the people in these prisons to have healthy outlets, and that’s what these programs represent. As one inmate told visiting documentarians:

“When you’re on the court, you ain’t worrying about what’s going on in the dome. You aren’t worrying about what the rap sheet says. There’s a sense of love there… We didn’t have that in society.”

-Doo Wop, “Prison Ball


[Photo via / San Quentin News]

One Response to "The Prison Leagues: Organized Sports in the US Penal System"

  1. B   Friday, January 1st, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    How awesome. not only does it give them a positive outlet IF they get out maybe they can move forward in some type of sports career.