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


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.

"Compared to the way things are now, you didn't even know you were doing time," said Ted Sullivan, the self-proclaimed master of handball at Jackson. "You watched the calendar and said, 'I can't wait until the next game.' You did your time better because you had a way to relax.

"When Ron [LeFlore] went from here to the Tigers, other guys started thinking maybe they'd get a shot too if they played well enough. And then the riot came."

The glaring contrast between recreation programs at Jackson past and present sent inmate No. 106003 flying into a bitter tirade. Augustus Jackson, 47, is serving life for first-degree murder and parole violation, and he would willingly play a more active role in officiating games if more games were being played.

"Custody tells the athletic directors what to do, how to do it and damn near when to do it," Jackson said. "Before the riot, I played on every varsity sport they had. Now I'm concerned about the young guys in here not having anything to do.

"I understand if no one sympathizes with us. But if you guys would give the prisoners more things to do, you wouldn't have all the rapes and stabbings and rebellions. These guys in here are idle, and that means trouble."

Jackson's recreation director, Tom DeSantis, said his staff of five went out of its way to offer inmates alternatives to substance abuse and belligerence.

"We offer them what we feel is a privilege, and they usually don't mess up their privileges," DeSantis said. "They want the gym open and they utilize the gym in heavy numbers. They use the outside playing areas in heavy numbers.

"As long as we've got the equipment there for them and we're offering that as therapeutic out-of-the-cell time, leisure-time activity -- which is what we are supposed to do -- I think we are doing our job."

DeSantis and his staff don't deliver on their promises, said Dan Farah, an inmate appealing his 10- to 20-year sentence for cocaine possession with intent to deliver.

"The physical activities available are very limited," said Farah, a member of Jackson's exclusive running club. "And for the number of people housed here, the percentage of people involved in activities is low.

"The running club gets to go out on the yard when the rest of the population isn't. The yard is open and it's big, and many, many people could run out there. Yet they restrict the number."

James Marlin, 38, grew from a teen-ager to a man in prison and likely will die behind bars, as well. He was sentenced to two life sentences for armed robbery and assault 21 years ago.

Though Marlin appreciates DeSantis' attempts to provide inmates with outlets, he has watched prison athletes go into steady decline.

"As compared to years ago, we don't have 5 percent of the athletics we once had," Marlin said. "We really don't have an athletic program. Anytime we try to get something organized, they say it's a security problem."

One Jackson inmate less inclined to complaining is 6-foot-5, 284-pound convicted murderer Charles Billings. A lifer, Billings has developed monstrous muscle mass in the prison weight room.

"Whenever I get tense, I know it's time to lift some steel," Billings said. "The more I lift, the quicker the tension goes away. And after I lift, I sleep better."

Women also realize the benefits of athletics.

"Around all these women, you're faced with all kinds of attitudes," said Machelle Pearson, a 24-year-old at Scott Regional Facility who has served a life sentence for first-degree murder since she was 15.

"Instead of going out and getting ticketed for jumping on somebody or arguing, I either go work out or close myself off in my room."

Venus Pippins, 29, serving 14 months for crack-cocaine possession, said the storehouse full of athletic equipment at Scott Regional is put to good use.

"Everybody's addicted to some kind of working-out here," Pippins said. "If they don't do it every day, they're sick. They can't eat or go about their normal lives because their mental stability isn't there."

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