Sports gear for inmates sought

Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 11:09 p.m.

The head of Florida's prison system had what he called "a glaring moment of the obvious" last summer during a midday visit to the recreation yard at a large state prison for men. Secretary James McDonough saw hundreds of men standing around with nothing to do while a handful were jogging and a small number did a few push-ups and sit-ups.

"When I asked why no one was doing anything, the recreation director described a wonderful soccer program, but said that they only used the ball for tournaments so that it would not get kicked into the (razor) wire fence," McDonough said. "What I realized was that we had a lack of equipment to do things, not a lack of ideas or staff to make physical activity a regular event inside our prisons."

During the fall, McDonough started a campaign to encourage donations of used athletic equipment for inmates, appealing to everyone from soccer moms to the Miami Heat for their unused gear.

"Giving things to inmates may be seen as needless kindness," McDonough said. "But it's in the interest of all of us in Florida to keep these people active."

Prison records show that most of the 90,000 people in Florida prisons will eventually be released. A lack of physical activity could return them to their communities in worse health than when they entered prisons, McDonough said, resulting in higher medical costs and other expenses for those communities.

"This is not about body building and we don't want to make these guys big or bad or mean," McDonough said. "It's more about them being healthy and active and making their time in prison more constructive."

Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a public information officer for the prison system, said inmates playing basketball is more than just a game.

"Sometimes a basketball isn't just a basketball," Rackleff said. "An inmate learns valuable lessons playing a game with a team — how to practice, show up, accept responsibility, humility, to accept guidelines and rules and to accept the objective authority of a coach and on and on."

Donated items received so far are not necessarily new, but are usable. The University of Florida women's basketball team sent 26 basketballs. Florida State University donated 12 footballs and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University pitched in three soccer balls and thee volleyballs.

A few donations could not be used because of the security risk they presented, like weight equipment that could be used as projectiles. Those items were donated to other charitable organizations with fewer security concerns. Some sporting goods could be used with minor adaptations. For example, bats are tied to the backstop fence or to a spike in the ground near home plate to prevent unhappy players from using a bat as a weapon.

State law prohibits most direct donations to prisons, so the sporting goods are going first to the Corrections Foundation, a nonprofit direct support organization for the Department of Corrections run by former prison Secretary Louie Wainwright. State law also prohibits any part of the prison budgets from being used on recreational items for inmates. Previously, faith-based groups and local groups in the communities near prisons would send a few items to prisons, but never enough softball or basketballs or soccer balls to keep hundreds busy.

Prison officials can be contacted at (850) 488-0421.

Karen Voyles can be reached at 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun. com.

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