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.