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What Shutting Down Sports Took from the Incarcerated

While pro and college sports remain on pause, a forgotten fan base is left with less.

Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

What Shutting Down Sports Took from the Incarcerated


Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Being quarantined isn’t like being incarcerated. Well, it is and it isn’t.

There’s a lot in common: too much time / not enough purpose, feeling suffocated by people / feeling distant from the ones you love, long-term uncertainty / short-term overwhelm, racing anxieties / and bored boring boredom. 

The main difference is, you know, being incarcerated. 

Our current climate has pulled all of our focus to what can often be the ‘before’ in the before and after of policing and incarcerating. I spoke to a colleague this weekend who served twenty years in prison who said, “People think prison is insulated from what’s happening in the outside world. Really, prison amplifies what’s happening in the outside world.”

It’s true for racial injustice, and it is still true for Covid-19.

As American fandom reels with no live games and unknown season openings, a real vacancy is felt. All that sports offer us in community, thrill, and simple distraction would be particularly useful as we struggle through our pandemicized existence. It would be even more useful for the fans in prisons and jails with so much more lost, and so much less remaining. 

Men at the Philadelphia Detention Center help to construct the stage. Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

I’ve spent almost 300 hours teaching theater and dance inside men’s prisons. Beyond the rehearsal process, which culminates in a weekend of performances for gen-pop, we spend time on team building, leadership, discussion groups, and spiritual exploration. 

Every time I meet a new group, gathered in the jailhouse gym, I’m relieved and thankful to be trusted. I’m in a world I don’t understand, trying my best to help my team share their stories and excel in front of a crowd.

My team. Usually around ten men who aren’t just trusting my artistic leadership, they’re trusting my character. They share candidly about their lives outside, how they came to be incarcerated, and what it’s like to be locked-up. From ten years in solitary confinement to legal appeals to the danger of everyday life, my teams have made it clear- incarceration is not rehabilitation. 

Angelica celebrating the conclusion of the program at CI Noble in Ohio. Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

On the Inside

Too much of the day is always spent in the housing unit. While educational programs and social work staff are normally available (to wildly varying degrees), in the Covid era, these activities are gone. Visits are gone. Even standard religious services are gone.  

Lock-downs are not altogether uncommon. A unit might be locked down because of a fight, even a flu could lock-down a facility for a week. Under those lock-down circumstances, if you and your cellie agree, you might pass the time watching the game. Three hours of escapism and normalcy where you just might be able to block-out your environment. The cellblocks I’ve seen look far more like Shawshank than anything in the 21st century should. It’s a simple something. I love walking into a morning rehearsal with guys bleary-eyed from staying up too late watching the game. It’s always worth it, and always the first thing they ask about.  

That’s part of what we love about big games, playoffs, and tournaments. The chance of discovering a common interest with a stranger is good, it’s a short-cut to feeling connected. While we’re missing our go-to conversation starters on slack or while waiting in line, these men are missing a low-risk, high-reward way to engage with their peers, officers, and plain clothes staff. When it’s impossible to know who is a threat, or who’s alright, sports are a common ground that’s now roped off.  

Sports have been my starting point too while cultivating friendships inside. Whether it’s bonding with a team member who ran track at my alma mater over the campus sports complex, or agreeing that Mike Tomlin really is one of the best in the game, it’s the easiest ways to sit down and start building comradery. 

Effortless athleticism from a participant at CI Noble in Ohio. Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

In the Game

Many of the men I’ve worked with are not just fans, they’re athletes as well. Organized leagues and scheduled, programmatic access to fields and courts are for many, the highlight of their week. Whether it’s the familiarity of something you loved before lock-up, or the bond uniquely formed on a team, healthy competition energizes the body and sharpens the mind. 

These yard and rec hours are gone. Completely. Most correctional facilities are now in lock-down 23 hours a day, and shared equipment is off-limits. If you’re missing summer softball leagues and cross-fit, caged by your 800 ft2 apartment, imagine its 6×8, and you share it with another grown man. 

When working as a dance team leader, I am on the look-out for the athletes. 

I lean heavily on strength-based skills, agility, and grounded movement that feels native to an athlete. Teaching four routines in six days does present some difficulty for any choreographer, but in a level four max prison with almost no prior experience in the group- you’ve really got a challenge. 

Men at CI Noble in Ohio warm up for their performance. Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

A difficult concept to grasp for a new dancer can often be formations. It’s not just what you’re doing it, but where you’re doing it- making complex lines, transition in unison- it’s a lot to absorb. The day I handed out the “playbooks”, all that changed. Any of the men who had felt out of their element were right back in it. Days of drawing up basketball plays and running routes kicked in and all it took were X’s and O’s.

Things got sticky around Saturday rehearsal too though. The question of what took precedent- the soccer league, or my session was no small one. Hearing the discussion amongst teammates, unpolluted by my own hope of being picked, showed me what a sacrifice it was to come work on the performance, and that I’d better match in value what was given up on the pitch.  

I wish I had that pressure now. I wish the choice was between two enriching afternoons. Options of any kind now seem a long way off. 

Dancers from Angelica’s team at SCI Dallas in Pennsylvania in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

Beyond Ourselves

As the few rehabilitative, positive offerings inside a facility grow farther and farther away from those who need them, the true character of our incarceration systems is revealed. 

Everything about incarceration is designed to remove- remove the threat from the community, remove the instigator from the environment, remove the person from society.

At it’s best, sports let us connect- to the place we come from, to strangers we would never meet, to a cause we can rally behind.

Isolation is not just a tactic to slow a virus- it is a technique to remove the people who have been labeled a virus.

This reductive, lazy, dehumanizing label is pervasive in our criminal justice system. It ignores the individual in the interest of cohesive messaging and overwrites complexities in the name of headlines.

We have taken people, like any you have ever known and loved, removed them like a cancer, yelled, “Heal yourself.” and walked away.

You know from experience, if you’re sick, you don’t need to be left alone, you need to be connected. It is critical to your survival.

Sports is not a wholesale solution to our broken correctional structures, it’s the late 90’s CGI tail of a hockey puck saying, “Look here, this matters, the lives that surround me are worth your attention.”

Every sense of belonging, feeling of pride, or marker of achievement athletic competition has brought to your life is equally true for the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. They don’t miss it. You don’t miss it. We miss it. 

Let your comradery extend beyond your fantasy league, and behind the bars of prisons and jails. We talk about devoted fans as being a team’s “nation”. Your nation is bigger than just your team, and a huge portion has been forgotten. Cheer for them, rally for them, fight for them- and the nation is made stronger for it. 

Shining Light staff and participants at SCI Frackville in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Shining Light and Jenny England.

To learn more about the program Angelica works with, visit https://www.shining-light.com

To learn more about life inside from the men who live it, check out https://www.earhustlesq.com

Angelica is an NYC based creative. She has performed in the national tours of Broadway musicals, written for ESPN.com, and teaches theater and dance in men's maximum security prisons. 2018 Broadway Show League Female MVP! Her loyalties stem from her roots, and remain with the 49ers, Giants, Sharks, and UCLA Bruins.

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