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Sports and fitness are essential to rehabilitation, stress reduction and overall health maintenance. Basketball, baseball and flag football, whether they are seasonal leagues or random pick-up games, are significant events for players and spectators behind the wall. The coronavirus, however, brought these activities to a screeching halt in March of 2020.

But COVID-19 has done nothing to dampen the passion that the men have for sports. In facilities with television, all sporting events are hotly debated topics for the 24 hours after the games have ended. Here at Green Haven, men get their doses of sports from ESPN, the FAN radio network and the Associated Press news feeds that are downloaded on tablets.

Sometimes a sports figure or event will be discussed by a large population of the block. Everyone yells from their cells to get their point across. Some of the guys could be sportscasters because the breadth of their knowledge on sports and players is almost encyclopedic.

Solitary sports and sports with less intense physical contact have continued unabated; the jogger community is small here, and you can find the usual suspects setting pace around the large dirt yards in Green Haven.

Weight lifting in the yards has continued non-stop throughout the pandemic and even picking up new adherents because of it. Chin ups and dip bars always attract a queue of young men, who are shirtless in warm weather, revealing waistlines that ascend into V-shaped torsos, six-pack abs, and bulging biceps as they challenge one another to see who can do the most reps on the pull-up bar.

Often the winner of the contest will get criticized about his form by the loser of the contest. In prisons, those chiseled physiques are displays of manhood, and they mirror the tough stereotypes we see in movies.

Handball courts host doubles and singles contests. More often than not, LatinX brothers are the ones who reign supreme there. It’s not always the young guys that are kicking butt. Solid middle-aged brothers play with tenacity and finesse. Once in a while, all the best guys in the facility will play, and a small crowd of spectators will get to witness intense volleys between guys who have mastered hand-eye coordination. Handball is a full body workout that stretches muscles and demands strong hearts and lungs. I used to play, but that was a lifetime ago. I’m just a wistful spectator now.

Let’s not forget about soccer. As the springtime brings warm, sunny days, soccer nets are out and the fleet-footed Caribbean and South American brothers are back dancing across the field and illustrating an athletic skill set that is relatively new to the sport scene behind the wall. Most of the South American players are small in stature with huge calves that speak to a lifetime of playing, here and abroad. Of all the sports played behind the wall, soccer is definitely the most aerobic.

Sports can sometimes become pretty contentious in the heat of the game, but without sports and its endorphin boost and stress-relieving benefits, prison would probably be a lot more dangerous than it already is.

More than that, sports is a universal language that nurtures friendships across race, ethnicities and gang affiliation. Sports have allowed many to put the dark, hovering shadow of the pandemic on a shelf, and remember that life goes on, and we still need to have fun, together and apart.

For a large portion of the population, the end of the pandemic means the welcome return of contact sports.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.