The grass is spotty, the dirt patches shine through. The field isn’t what you’d expect for an Ultimate Frisbee league, as it is centered in the outfield of a prison softball field. Yet, a little over a dozen men, convicts, stand at the ready. Some wearing gloves, some shirtless with all manner of tattoos, and the field is marked with orange pylons commandeered from the prison flag football league. This is Frisbee, prison Frisbee.
When people think of federal prison they think of hardened convicts. They think of razor wire and gun towers. They think of stabbings, stompings, and race conflicts. They think of prison guards, their mace and their batons. Such of these thoughts are applicable. Just yesterday someone was stomped in the prison chow hall for sitting at the wrong table. Prison is prison, and what happens in prison simply happens. But perhaps when people think about prison they should think too of sports leagues, camaraderie, and healthy competition, albeit competition with teeth. After all, this is prison sports we’re talking about, not an intramural league at a liberal arts college. Most of us are serving sentences in excess of five or even 10 years; some may never go home.
As the Frisbee players of FCI Petersburg – a medium security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia – group up, they start to throw around a few Frisbees. Long games of catch ensue in the pre-game dawn light. Games here are often pick-up and last from 6 PM to 8 PM. These times coincide with the “activities moves,” when the reinforced internal prison gates – gates topped with razor wire and security cameras, of course – are opened and prisoners are allowed to move to different locations within the prison. While there are weeks when only one or two games are played, there have literally been complete months when everyone comes out and plays for every single night. Again, this isn’t regular Frisbee, it is prison Frisbee, and the stakes aren’t about wins on a scoreboard – of which we have none – but more about identity and a sense of being. Hey, we’re in prison and we need something to grasp in an effort to find meaning in life, even if for only a few hours a week, and even if only a small part of our identity.
As the warm-up is complete, teams are picked. Often the two best players are forced into being team captains, the ones who will pick their players. A bright orange Frisbee is tossed like a coin. The one who calls it right picks first. After the teams are picked – teams usually consist of six to eight players each – the first game begins.
All of the prison Frisbee players line up in their end zones and await the kickoff, when the opposing team wings the Frisbee from its end zone to the opposing team. The kickoff occurs, the game commences. The rules are simple: The team in possession must make complete passes in order to retain possession of the Frisbee. Once the Frisbee is caught, the player has three steps to stop, and once he is marked by a player from the opposing team, they have to a count of 10 to get rid of the Frisbee. If the count of 10 is reached and the Frisbee has not been thrown, or if the pass is incomplete, then it is a turnover and the other team takes possession.
The teams battle it out. Once the Frisbee is thrown in an attempt at a completed pass, everyone in its vicinity converges, either attempting to catch it, and thus make the pass a completion, or knock it down or intercept it, and make it a change of possession. The competition is fierce, and when a “floater” is tossed up into the air, someone will pay for going up unguarded. Broken noses, bones, and other injuries are not uncommon. Some wear mouth guards to ensure that they don’t lose any teeth.
The teams battle until a touchdown is scored. This can be accomplished by either catching the Frisbee in the opponent’s end zone (a regular touchdown) or by intercepting the Frisbee in one’s own end zone (a defensive touchdown, called a “Callahan”). Regardless of the type of touchdown, each awards one point. Games regularly go to 10 points. During league play – when actual Ultimate Frisbee teams are picked and battle it out for several months on end in bi-weekly games – scheduled games are played, but during “free rec,” games are often run back-to-back-to-back until the 8 PM move is announced over the prison’s public address system. Then the pylons are picked up and everyone heads back to the prison housing units for showers.
In prison sports, much like in sports leagues outside of prison, there is competition. But in prison, the fierceness of the competition and aggressiveness is multiplied by a factor of five. Insults leveled aren’t merely insults received by a specific person, but by that person and the group he belongs to. This could be a group of friends, a racial group, or even a prison gang (called a “car” in prison parlance).
Several years ago one of the white players – who make up the majority of prison Frisbee players at FCI Petersburg – called a player from another group a “bitch.” In retaliation the player wasn’t only brutally beaten by the disrespected man, but also by the man’s friend. This occurred in broad daylight, in the middle of the playing field. While the beating only lasted for perhaps a minute, it resumed after the game, when three members of the group beat the insulter again. Evidently they didn’t appreciate the comment.
In another instance, a league championship game had to be called due to fistfights. The two teams playing that year were of a group informally and not-so-affectionately called the “Angry White Guys” and a “mixed” group, meaning the team had white guys, black guys, and a Hispanic guy or two. Whenever the Angry White Guys would score, they would cheer “White Power.” In response, whenever the mixed team would score, the black guys on the mixed team would chant “Black Power.” While the white guys on the mixed team – officially called “Team 4″ – would not join in on either set of chants, we certainly backed up our players who did. And when the fistfights broke out, we certainly carried our own weight. This is prison sports.
For the most part, issues like this don’t occur on a large scale. More often than not, someone gets fouled by someone else and the two of them have a go at it, and that’s it. In league play, there are referees who call the game – a position not many are willing to accept due to the inherent danger of such positions in prison sports. But in free rec, the honor system is used. Often it falls to the better players – who are the most respected – to call the game fairly and not allow cheating or other underhanded tactics. And in this, there is some level of honor.
Prison sports are like sports outside of prison, just more aggressive. There are rules, there are players, there are penalties, and there is fun, along with the tension. While some refuse to play due to the risk involved – after all, a fight over an alleged slight with one fellow prisoner can easily escalate into a group battle of multiple cars, a true wreck – those who participate understand this and accept it. They understand that with honor and a little respect the game can be played, enjoyed, and truly is the best form of recreation available on the prison compound, the best exercise for sure. And that certainly counts for something, something worth playing for. This is Frisbee, prison Frisbee.
(First published by Blog Critics and used here by permission)