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Doing Hard Tee Time

Nov. 29, 2004
Nov. 29, 2004

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Nov. 29, 2004

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  • In a spectacular flameout after he retired from tennis, Roscoe Tanner deceived his friends and family and ended up penniless and in jail. Now he hopes to heal the wounds he's inflicted and repay all his debts--but it won't be easy

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Doing Hard Tee Time

True, 97% of the inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola will die there. And true, they've murdered, raped or robbed. But you've got to give them their propers: They sure build a nice golf course. It's the nine-hole Prison View Golf Course, just 21/2 hours north of New Orleans. This is the only golf course in the country on prison grounds, and it may be the only course in the world that requires a complete background check before you can get a tee time.

This is an article from the Nov. 29, 2004 issue Original Layout

Warden: So, Mr. Kowalski, word on the street is you don't replace your divots.

Seriously, a golfer must call at least 48 hours in advance and provide his date of birth, driver's license number and Social Security number. Not allowed: convicted felons, former inmates, people on the prison's visitors' list and, of course, inmates. You call back the next day to see if you got a time. How many prisons have people calling to see if they can get in? Kind of gives new meaning to those old blues lines:

I got lucky last summer when I got my time, Angola bound.

Well my partner got a hundred, I got ninety-nine, Angola bound.

It's even weirder to drive through prison gates to play golf ($20 with cart). It's all you can do to keep from telling the guy at the security gate, "We're here for nine to 18."

Still, you never really feel in danger at Prison View, even though the inmates not only built it, but many of them also work the grounds, sans guards. They're trusties, which means that they've been in prison for at least seven years and have virtually spotless records inside.

One of them is Jeffrey Hawkins, who has been at Angola for 14 years, doing life for second-degree murder. It was his 38th birthday. He and his shovel could've wandered off to the highway anytime he wanted, but they didn't.

"Being outdoors in this environment is great," said Hawkins, who was putting in a cart path. "It's beautiful. I learn something new here every day."

Playing at Prison View, you learn something new too. For instance, you learn what you should and shouldn't say to your golf ball. Like, when playing the 7th hole--which is separated from the hardest-core inmates, in Camp J, by only a razor-wire fence--you never want to holler, "Run! Run!" Or, "I killed that one!" Or, "Man, I got a shank today!" It's fine, though, to say after hooking one, "That's in jail," because it probably is.

The other thing is, seeing all the prisoners in white T-shirts and orange pants playing basketball behind barbed wire and a huge guard tower, you don't feel so bad about leaving number 7 with a double bogey. This is because at least you are leaving.

Not everybody in the town of Angola is thrilled about the Prison View nine. At the convenience store up the street, Connie Knapps Ross, whose brother, prison guard David Knapps, was taken hostage and murdered by inmates in 1999, can hardly talk about it.

"I don't think it's right," she said about the course, "because it's supposed to be a maximum security prison, and it's a playground."

But the brains behind it, Warden Burl Cain, says he built the course to save lives. With 600 correctional staffers and their families living on the grounds, he was looking for new ways to keep the guards around during their off-hours, in case the inmates get the urge to go sightseeing. He had hunting, fishing, swimming, softball and tennis on the prison's 18,000 acres, but nothing for golfers. The nearest course was 45 minutes away. So he persuaded the prison dentist, John Ory, a 15 handicapper, to design a course on an old bull pasture.

On the backs of the prisoners, they did it for about $80,000, which they raised selling concessions at Angola's famous prison rodeo. Ory says trying to build a course this good near New Orleans without inmate labor would have cost "about three million." Ory is part of a hot new trend in this country: prison dentists building golf courses.

No, that's a lie.

But the truth is, the course is a good thing for almost everybody. "If just one [inmate who is released] gets a job because of this program and doesn't commit a violent crime," Cain says, "it'll be worth every penny we spent."

You really oughta go play it. There are hilltop views of the prison below. There's an island green. And the tee markers are old handcuffs painted red or white.

People play the course once and come back again, thus raising the prison's recidivism rate.

Besides, who doesn't love to walk the green mile?

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com

It's weird to drive through prison gates to play golf. It's all you can do to keep from telling the guard, "We're here for nine to 18."

COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER