Sports in prison serves as a way to keep inmates under control

August 11, 1991|By Scott Walton | Scott Walton,Knight-Ridder News Service

When he entered the State Prison of Southern Michigan at Jackson 15 months ago for second-degree murder, inmate No. 208960's real name -- Donald Paulos -- lost its relevance. But a parole board could give him his name and life back as early as Dec. 11, 2001.

Until then, Paulos' life revolves around those few hours each week when he's allowed out of his cell to lose his past and his present on a dingy tennis court reserved for members.

"Through sports, I can escape the mental pain," said Paulos, a slender, spectacled man from Westland.

"Physical pain you can block out. But you can't stop mental pain without an outlet. I can look at that tennis ball coming at me and -- whop! -- rifle it, and some of the pain is gone."

All 31,000 inmates locked up in Michigan's 32 prisons seek an outlet of some kind. For some, the outlet is drugs smuggled from the outside or alcohol -- "spud juice" -- ingeniously distilled from // vegetable peelings and concealed in cells. Others seek solace in religion or social activism; the Muslims, the reborn Christians and the Ku Klux Klan all are represented behind prison walls.

Still others manage to remove themselves psychologically from the prison setting through self-improvement, digesting legal manuals to launch mostly futile appeals, pursuing high school or college degrees or learning a trade.

Finally, a dwindling faction within the prison population views sports as the outlet for their pent-up anxieties.

Count Paulos, 31, among the latter.

When the barred steel doors slam shut in his face, he hears a message in the metallic echoes: Just Do It. When he squints through watery eyes at the summer sun's rays bouncing off the barbed wire surrounding the prison, Paulos takes it as a sign: Just Do It.

He knows the message isn't urging him to follow Bo Jackson's cross-training lead.

To Paulos, the state correctional system -- and society as a whole -- have but one thing to say to him while he serves time: Just Do It.

Paulos said disembodied voices had spoken to him even before he was sent to prison. After he had spent two sleepless months fretting over what he believed to be his wife's drug abuse and infidelity, inner voices told Paulos to kill her. He heeded the voices and just did it.

Now he's stuck in prison for at least 10 more years.

"You see the meat wagon coming for a guy who's just gotten stuck," Paulos said, "and you see his blood on the floor as you walk by. How is that supposed to rehabilitate someone? With enough of that in your system, you go nuts."

In 1989 -- the latest statistics available from the state corrections department -- 288 inmates attempted suicide. Seven succeeded. There were 760 assaults against prison staff, 12 against visitors and 626 against fellow prisoners. Forty percent (249) of the inmate-on-inmate assaults resulted in serious injury.

There were 2,865 documented cases of substance abuse, 868 cases of theft and 1,458 cases of vandalism.

Against this backdrop, inmates say, recreation privileges are manipulated by prison administrations as either tokens to be withheld for even the slightest breach of conduct, or as pacifiers to distract prisoners from other means of relieving frustration.

If recreation is the sole redeeming factor of life behind bars, then Custody -- the department that controls inmate movement and schedules -- is the bane of prisoners' existence.

"I was locked down almost the whole time I was at Jackson," said an Ionia Temporary Facility inmate who didn't want his full name published. "This place is no picnic -- no prison is -- but it's a definite improvement."

"A good inmate is a tired inmate," said Bob Young, the athletic director at Ionia.

Young says Ionia's minimum-security facility, which holds all but first-degree murderers, is dangerously overcrowded. It was built to hold fewer than 500, yet holds more than 900 today.

"My job is to mentally remove a guy from this environment for at least one hour per day," Young said. "I have to get them to release tension in a positive way so they don't go back into their unit taking anger out in negative ways.

"Luckily, we have a good relationship here between Custody and Recreation. If we keep the inmates busy, then the people in Custody don't have to deal with them."

Young tries to keep the inmates busy by playing softball and basketball, running and lifting weights.

At Jackson, the world's largest walled prison, Custody's wishes come first. Inmates attribute the strict security and the lock-'em-down mentality of the guards to the May 22, 1981, riot sparked by a prisoner's stabbing of a guard with a sharpened mop handle. About 1,800 inmates began looting and setting fires in response to the weapons search that followed the stabbing.

Jackson inmate No. 086044, a 68-year-old serving life for an armed robbery that took place 24 years ago, said the last great days of prison sports activity vanished after the riot.

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