In Davis County Jail, the only sport we had to play was handball. This version of handball, prevalent in penal institutions across the United States, is played with racquetball, not traditional handball which requires gloves. There was one inmate whose skill level was head and shoulders above the rest of us, and he wasn’t the best athlete. He was 40 years old and had been incarcerated for almost half of his life. His dominance was the result of one thing: practice.
In prison, I sometimes watched inmates play chess. There was an inmate who never lost a game while he was there. We called him Florida, because he spent almost 10 years in prison there. I remember thinking he was some kind of genius. I didn’t put two and two together until I came here and met some prisoners who can barely read but who are phenomenal chess players.
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Some prisoners crochet, others draw, and some play cards or other games in their spare time, and many become good at what they do. I have seen incredible ping pong, horseshoe and card players. In jail, you could tell which prisoners had been in jail if you sat them on the pinochle table. The level of competition in many prison games is amazing, but makes sense when you think about the years and years of practicing. When it comes to basketball there is a plethora of really good shooters out there, but not many guys know how to play team ball. I stand by my argument that “prison ball” and basketball are two different things because of their physical nature and because many prisoners don’t know the rules.
With the extra time given to prisoners, this environment is a perfect place to learn and hone a skill. Unfortunately, many of these activities will not benefit them in the outside world. I’m not saying prisoners shouldn’t do things to pass the time, but when I look at the countless hours spent on this and that, I see a wasted resource.
The weather is changing outside and I see more and more bored prisoners inside. Prison is an almost ideal environment for a college education; food and accommodation are provided and for the most part a low stress environment with few distractions. Unfortunately, college is not an option for most inmates. Correspondence courses are available at some institutions for those who can afford them, but they are few in number.
The inmates here at Gunnison, along with the education department, have created a program called UPrep. They offer equivalent non-accredited college courses. We have capable prisoners who share their expertise; they create programs and teach courses on a voluntary basis. Student participation is also voluntary. Inmates help other inmates get an education that could help their future. I can’t think of a better way for prisoners to spend their time.
The UPrep recently had to abandon dozens of students and close registrations due to security regulations. UPrep operates nights and weekends, and there is currently only one agent working during the busiest hours. The mission of the Department of Corrections is to reintegrate offenders into society as law-abiding citizens. I have heard over and over again that education is the best tool we have in tackling recidivism, with inmates who graduate from college being the least likely to return to prison. In my opinion, UPrep does a good job or better than any other program in prison. I want to believe that if the right people knew about it, another officer would be grateful.
I would like the state to offer prisoners the possibility of obtaining university degrees because I am convinced that this would prevent crime and save money on future incarceration. I can understand why some people do not want the state to pay for the college of convicts because they think it is unfair. I suggest access to student loans and a focus on education. I know I was more than happy to sign promissory notes for Snow College’s Building Trades and Culinary Arts program because I thought the school would be a better use of my time than anything else. here. Many inmates find themselves with remarkable skills due to the unique circumstances offered by incarceration. It could only benefit society if some of that time and effort was spent on education rather than handball or pinochle.
Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony counts for offenses committed between 2011 and 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 25 years in prison, according to parole hearings.