No prison in the U.S. is more famous than Sing Sing. Packed into 55 hillside acres overlooking the Hudson at Ossining, N.Y., Sing Sing is "the Big House," "Up the River" and the home of the electric chair. Guards with Thompson submachine guns man the 26 watchtowers atop the massive walls of this maximum-security prison, and the mind boggles at the thought of almost 2,000 Humphrey Bogarts and James Cagneys stirring restlessly in the yard below, waiting to put the strong arm on the warden and make the break. In truth, however, the inmates at Sing Sing are not stirring restlessly; instead, when the weather is fair, they are out in the yard playing baseball, softball, boccie and handball. Groups of men in gray trousers, shirts and caps gather silently in a corner, not to conspire but to lift weights or pitch horseshoes. The air is filled not with mumbled threats and groans but with exultant cries of "Attaboy, Louis!" and "Ringer!" The fact is, sports are a very big thing at Sing Sing and at many other prisons throughout the land. Indeed, prisons offer a rich and varied recreational fare that many colleges would find hard to match. For example:
At Dannemora on the northern edge of the Adirondacks, another New York State maximum-security prison, the big yard has a bobsled run in the winter, which is banked against the prison walls. Alongside the start of the bob run is a ski jump—facing inward, alas.
At Green Haven, another New York maximum-security prison, croquet is the absolute rage in the infirmary yard. "Don't play against one of those old guys," cautions a young inmate. "They know the field backwards."
At San Quentin in California prisoners can take part in 12 different sporting activities, ranging from chess to boxing. San Quentin boxers are quite proficient. Three years ago they defeated two alternate members of the U.S. Olympic team before it left for Tokyo.
January 23, 1967
The Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas is a member of the American Contract Bridge League. Once a year inmates hold a tournament to which outsiders are invited. One year a pair of inmates, bank robbers by trade, played a pair of guests, local bankers, and the foursome got along splendidly. Leavenworth also permits inmates to play bingo, with candy bars going to winners. For those who prefer golf, there is a miniature course on the grounds.
The federal pen in Atlanta, Ga. is one of 21 prisons having a National Baseball Congress umpire school. Residents taking the course must attend some 30 hours of classes, take a written examination and participate in at least 30 games without encountering sustained protest. "We look for men of integrity," says an inmate ump. "Being an umpire develops a man's personality, sharpens his wits and certainly broadens his perspective. It has given me better control over myself."
At Menard state prison in Illinois inmates chip in nickels and dimes to equip a Little League baseball team in nearby Chester. A few times during the season the youngsters come inside the walls to play, and when they do, says Ross Randolph, Illinois director of public safety, "The men applaud and cheer something tremendous."
In Texas 12 prisons in the state system play one another in baseball. The pennant winners in the northern and southern divisions meet in a best two-out-of-three-game "World Series." Ferguson prison has won for the last two years. Warden Kenneth Coleman gives much of the credit for the victories to inmate Hank Thompson, the former Giant third baseman, now doing 10 years for theft. Thompson is not in sharp enough condition to play himself, but, says Warden Coleman, "He's a big help to the kids as a coach. A lot of our winning the championship was due to his being able to talk baseball to the young inmates, getting them to think baseball and teaching them what to do with the ball when they get it."
Even bigger than baseball is the annual all-Texas prison rodeo held in October. Last year the rodeo netted more than $250,000, and the money was used to buy artificial legs, eyeglasses, false teeth, sports equipment, musical, religious and educational materials, television sets and holiday dinners, items considered vital to prison morale and health but not financed by the taxpayers. More than 600 cons apply each year for the chance to compete in the rodeo, which is considered one of the most exciting in its category because the prisoners ride and perform with such reckless abandon. The star of the show is Val Markovich, a clown. Because the fans expect it, Markovich wears a suit of black-and-white prison stripes instead of the prison's regular white cotton shirt and pants. Markovich is guaranteed star billing for some time; he is doing 99 years.
Besides participating in baseball, rodeos, boxing matches, bobsledding, boccie and bridge, convicts across the country also indulge in any number of other leisure-time endeavors. There are many prison newspapers and magazines (some of them inevitably named Time). There are prisoners who raise tropical fish and canaries in their cells, prisoners who tie flies and make toy boats.
"Any prison that doesn't have a good recreational program is missing one of the most important areas in rehabilitation," says Paul McGinnis, New York State correction commissioner. "Even at our reception center in Elmira, where we get all 16-to 21-year-olds in the state, we pay particular attention to athletics, what the prisoner thinks of athletics, what he likes. We even have tryouts to stimulate in the individual the desire to take part in athletics. Sports give the prisoner an opportunity to burn up a lot of energy, and if he burns it up in sports, it solves a lot of problems for him, emotionally and otherwise, about confinement in an institution."
The man who did the most to put sports on the map at Sing Sing (and in prisons generally) was Warden Lewis E. Lawes. He has been dead now for 20 years, but he remains a figure of controversy within the state. To some oldtimers, Lawes was a poseur, a publicity-seeker; to others, he was a humanitarian, a penological prophet years ahead of his time, who wrote and spoke because he had important things to say about the convict and society. Whatever Lawes was, he never hesitated to express his beliefs. Although he was required by law to supervise electrocutions in the Death House ("Condemned Cells, the Cee-Cees, that's the polite name we use here," says a Sing Sing guard), he was completely opposed to capital punishment, viewing it as a futile gesture. In fact, he was honorary president of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment. He began his career as a guard at Dannemora when he was 20. In 1919, when he was 36, Governor Al Smith appointed him warden of Sing Sing. Conditions were bad, and there had been a rapid turnover of wardens. It was said that the quickest way to get out of Sing Sing was to come in as warden. Lawes took over, seeing himself "not as an instrument of punishment, but a firm, frank friend in need."
At once Lawes did away with class distinctions among inmates. He forbade them to wear silk shirts and neckties and ordered everyone dressed alike. At the same time as he swept away corrupt privileges, he changed Sing Sing from a place of punishment to an institution concerned with rehabilitation. He furthered interest in the Mutual Welfare League and allowed inmates to put on theatrical shows, admitting the outside public. But, above all, he encouraged the development of athletics and, over the years, Sing Sing began the practice of fielding varsity teams that played visiting teams in baseball, football and basketball. There is a story at Sing Sing that when Governor Al Smith was a young assemblyman he came to see one of the baseball games and, after it was over, he addressed the inmates. "Fellow prisoners," he began, to the roar of laughter. Flustered, Smith started over again. "Fellow Democrats!" he bellowed. "I'm glad to see so many of you here tonight."
Paying spectators were admitted to games, the gate receipts going to the Mutual Welfare League. The league used the money to buy Christmas gift packages and sports equipment for the inmates. When Sing Sing started playing football in the '30s, opening and closing at home against the likes of the Ossining Naval Militia and the Port Jervis Cops, public reaction was intense. Some penologists criticized Lawes for coddling the inmates, and the warden, a prolific writer, turned out an article, Playing the Game on Sing Sing's Field.
"I can understand the theory of the 19th-century penologist or administrator who cried out for the punishment of offenders," Lawes wrote. " 'Put him in a cell, lock him up and throw the key away' is a theory that can be sustained from the standpoint of mere punishment for crime. It is not a difficult task and does not require imagination. But when we are asked to maintain a high standard of health, when we are cautioned to return men to society better than they come to us, when we are directed to rebuild characters and remold men's minds, we must have material to work with.... That is why I encourage these men to adopt hobbies which will occupy their leisure hours; hobbies not inconsistent with the orderly routine of the prison government. And that is why I encourage baseball, football and all other forms of outdoor recreation. While prisoners are taking their turn on the field; while they argue about their favorite heroes on the diamond or on the gridiron; while they discuss the salient points of a noted ring event or exchange ideas on politics or any other topic of common interest, they are not talking about their 'cases'; they forget about length of sentences; they have no time to brood about emotions. They are, during those hours, normal human beings with normal interests....
"I encourage prisoners with long 'bits' to play on our various teams. They have a big fight ahead of them—the fight against despondency. In order to regain society's confidence, it must be a clean fight. Football has all the essentials that encourage men to strive for accomplishment. Whether a halfback or a quarterback is making a touchdown, whether he is punting or making a forward pass, he appreciates the responsibility that is his. It is this sense of duty and allegiance to worthwhile group affiliation that I hope to encourage by football and other athletic events.
"A baseball game or a football contest with reputable outside teams serves a twofold purpose: visitors learn to understand that prisoners are human, and prisoners appreciate the necessity of playing the game on the square with their fellows. The urge for normal contact that is thus kindled keeps many prisoners to the line of reason and conformity. Its influence is far reaching."
Under Lawes, Sing Sing went big time in sports. Gerald F. Curtin, a former high school baseball and basketball coach, was hired as director of recreation, and Curtin, still on the job today, brought in a football coach with the appropriate name of John Law. Law had played at Notre Dame, and he began building a crackerjack team composed of such inmates as "Pickles" Liebman, "Blink" Weisberg, "Knute" Dillon, "Flash" Pine and the still-famous "Alabama" Pitts. The big yard down by the river was named Lawes Field, and the warden's youngest daughter, Cherie, served as the mascot for the 250 inmates, who dressed as cadets and performed with military precision at all games. Programs were printed, and the team was officially called the Black Sheep. By 1933 the football team really hit its stride; the Black Sheep walloped the Port Jervis Cops 40-13. This was Sing Sing's first win over the Cops in three years, and it put an end to the newspaper headlines screaming YOU CAN'T BEAT THE LAW.
Newspapers began staffing the games, and Sunday after Sunday sportswriters went up the river for the festivities. One of the paying spectators, Eugene Kelley, a 70-year-old mail carrier, acted as unofficial cheerleader. Dressed in white duck trousers, a red sweater and a funny hat with the legend, "Sing Sing, 1950," Kelley led the cheers, which consisted of thunderous boos from the inmates. Still, the pregame ceremonies were so moving—what with the cadenced marching of the cadets to the blaring band music of Onward Christian Soldiers and O Come, All Ye Faithful—that visiting sports-writers were left slobbering sentimentalists.
Alabama Pitts, in for a stickup, was the acknowledged star of the Black Sheep in both football and baseball. Paroled in 1935, Pitts, amidst much uproar, signed a professional baseball contract with the Triple A Albany Senators. An outfielder with a weak arm, he hit a disappointing .240. The Philadelphia Eagles then signed him as a halfback. He showed nothing and was released.
Nowadays, football is no longer played at Sing Sing. Wilfred Denno, who retired last week after 16 years as warden, said the yard is too hard for tackling. Outside spectators have not been allowed in for the last several years. However, Sing Sing continues to field varsity baseball and basketball teams, playing all games, as per custom, at home. And, again as per custom, all members of visiting teams are frisked upon entering the main gate.
A home run in the yard at Sing Sing is a home run almost anywhere. It is 270 feet down the left-field foul line, 440 in dead center and 340 in right. A thick 30-foot-high stone wall, topped by three watchtowers, encloses the outfield. Babe Ruth, playing for the Yankees in an exhibition game against the Black Sheep, hit a homer that is still talked about. It carried high over the wall and across the New York Central tracks that bisect the prison and finally came to earth about 600 feet away uphill. Curtin still has Ruth's bat in his office, carefully lacquered to preserve the mark made by the impact of the ball. Among other treasured mementos in Curtin's office is a photograph of the 1931 New York football Giants in the yard. The Giants are wearing double-breasted camel-hair coats with wraparound belts and wide-brimmed fedoras, and they have been mistaken for members of the Detroit Purple Mob.
Next to Ruth, the greatest hitter who ever played baseball at Sing Sing was an inmate, Piggy Sands. He stayed for 12 years, hitting about .440. Once, in a game against Sam Nahem, a National League pitcher during the early '30s, Sands hit two mighty homers, one over the watchtower in dead center field with a man on in the ninth to tie the score. Upon release, Sands still had enough zip left to play for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro team. Sands was also a splendid basketball player, scoring as many as 40 or 50 points in a game in an era of play when those figures often were the final score. "He was a wonderful boy and a wonderful athlete," says Curtin. "He was the best basketball player we've ever had. He was only 6 feet 1, but he was the center. He could rebound all day for you and make his 25 or 30 points. He could have played on any college team in the country. In baseball, he could play any position—shortstop, center field, first base. He even pitched for me."
For the past couple of years Sing Sing baseball teams have played just above .500 ball. One veteran guard blames the decline on the lack of severe sentences: "Nowadays, a judge gives a guy one to three years. You can't build a team when a guy is in for a year. In the old days we had big farm kids doing 10 to 12, 15 to 20. You had material." However, Sing Sing still comes on strong in basketball, because the players are in phenomenal condition. Whether the stretch be for one year or 10 years, there is nothing like a prison routine to get a man into shape, and the Sing Sing basketball teams are usually inexhaustible. And good. Last year the team won 18 and lost only three and averaged 100 points a game. According to Dom Vece, an outside professional basketball referee who has been officiating at Sing Sing for years, the prison team would be good enough to hold its own in Madison Square Garden's college tournament at Christmas.
Sing Sing is one of the few prisons to have a gym. It was built by Harry Warner of Warner Brothers in return for having been allowed to film scenes for the movie of one of Warden Lawes's many stories, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, inside the walls. A varsity game attracts as many as 1,000 inmates, who cheer aggressively for the visiting team. They also cheer for the Sing Sing team, but not as loudly, and it takes some slick ball handling by the felon five to excite the inmates.
Back in the 1940s the gym was under the loving supervision of a Trotskyite who had been incarcerated for blowing up a longshoreman's barge during a union dispute. He cared so much for the gym that he forbade the warden to walk on the waxed floor. The Trotskyite is best remembered by oldtimers for the time FBI agents came to Sing Sing to question him about an unexploded bomb found at a Republican Party gathering. "I don't know anything about it," the Trotskyite said. "When I make a bomb, it goes off."
There is an extensive intramural basketball and baseball program at Sing Sing. New York State by no means fosters segregation, but the prisoners generally form their teams on a racial basis. The intramural basketball league, for instance, has the Rens, a Negro team named after the old Harlem Renaissance team; the Old Men, Negro; the Jets, same; the Clippers, white; and the Puerto Rican All-Stars, who welcome anyone who cares to join. Up at Green Haven the racial breakdown prevails in tackle football, which is played with a vengeance. Here, however, Negro and white teams from the four yards play in separate leagues. At the end of the season the two top white and Negro teams meet in championship games against their own brethren.
There is no racial playoff for the ultimate championship. "Do you want a riot?" a guard asks. The Negroes would undoubtedly win. There is a Negro fullback named "Chop" who is not only the fastest runner in the prison but a superb weight lifter as well. He scores five, six or seven touchdowns a game with regularity. In the opinion of fellow inmates, who eagerly watch NFL football on TV, Chop would make it big in pro ball. Among the white football teams at Green Haven, there is a strong tendency to organize on national grounds. The Irish mostly form the Bay Ridge Tom Cats, and Italians compose the Spartans, who are quarterbacked by a member of the Profaci mob. Even though Mafia types may not be the best passers, they are natural leaders and automatically take over.
The biggest annual event at Sing Sing is the Field Day held on Labor Day. Cash prizes of $5, taken from the profits at the commissary, are awarded to the winners of such events as the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard hurdles and the 880-yard walk. "We do not have cross-country," says Curtin without being asked, "and we do not have pole vaulting." There is, however, a wheelbarrow race, a baseball throw and a sack race. There is even a 50-yard dash for "oldtimers." To be eligible, an inmate must have spent 10 years in prison. "That's straight time," adds Curtin quickly. "You can't go out and come back in again." The famous gangster, Owney Madden, who owned both New York City and Primo Camera back in the early '30s, just loved Field Day when he was at Sing Sing. To his horror, Madden realized that he would be released before the next Labor Day, and he asked if Field Day could be moved up to the Fourth of July. When told that it was impossible, Madden offered to underwrite a Field Day on the Fourth out of his own pocket. Warden Lawes agreed, and track buff Madden returned to civilian life a happy man.
Single-wall handball championships are also held on Field Day, with $5 going to the winners of the singles and doubles. Sing Sing has, of course, walls all over the place, and prisoners usually play with a tennis ball or a red rubber Spalding known as a "spaldeen." Recently regulation handballs have been introduced. Sing Sing is the only prison in the state that has a four-wall handball court, a depressing area inside the Death House where only residents of the Cee-Cees are allowed. When a Death House inmate wants to play, he must compete against a guard. Death House inmates are not allowed to mingle with one another. At present the Death House is empty. In 1965 the state legislature repealed the death penalty for most capital crimes. But even when the Death House was full, it was not a spiritless place. "When I worked in the Death House at Sing Sing," says Deputy Warden Albert Gilligan of Green Haven, "I thought it was going to be a very gloomy place, with everyone sitting around waiting to be electrocuted. But it was like any other cellblock. They'd be arguing over who was going to win the ball game or the fight the next week. The talk was about sports mostly."
At Sing Sing there are even a few prisoners who get to fish for stripers, bullheads and carp in the Hudson. These are members of the coal gang, and they bait up a line with leftovers from the mess hall. As a result, they catch mostly carp, but they have taken whoppers up to 46 pounds. "It's a score when they catch a big carp," says a guard. The fish is usually taken back to the cookhouse at Sing Sing, where it is cleaned and prepared.
Following dinner the inmates at Sing Sing are locked in their individual cells for the night. Up until 11:15 they can listen to selected radio programs over a headset. "They're very much sports-minded in here," says Curtin, who selects the programs. "They can listen to all Yankee and Met night home games. The Met fans at Sing Sing are a little louder than Yankee fans, but I don't know if there are more of them or not."
Then it is lights out, all you prisoners. Got to get plenty of sleep. Big game coming up tomorrow.