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Men play basketball on the yard at San Quentin State Prison, California
Basketball game at San Quentin State Prison, California (Photo by Phoeun You, San Quentin News)

As I stepped into the yard, en route to the basketball court, the air was chilly and the sunshine bright. 

The court is situated at one end of what we call the “little yard.” The yard takes its shape from the exterior wall of our housing unit: a lazily drawn “L,” defined by a 10-foot tall fence topped off with razor wire. 

The main attraction of the yard — judged by their frequent use — are the seven phones mounted on the wall of the housing unit. Two are claimed by the Bloods, three by the Gangster Disciples (known inside almost exclusively as the GDs) and two are for everyone else.

A heavy rain had soaked the ground the night before, driving the worms up from the earth and onto the court, where I began my walking circuit. 

Most of the worms lay motionless on the concrete, drying in the cold breeze and morning sun. A few squirmed, alive, questing for earth. For a moment I paused my routine to collect the squirmers, dropping them in the grass. There were six other men in the yard on this particular morning. We all looked tired, standing there in our navy blue coats and hunter-orange stocking caps.

While I went about my rescue work, I noticed a man I knew begin his own circuit around the yard. We did not speak on account of the bad blood between us; he’d spent the better part of a month threatening to beat and stab me for something I didn’t do. As a result, I kept my distance. 

Before long, a group of four men made their way onto the basketball court for some two-on-two. The men paired up across racial lines and quickly settled into an intense game. 

I enjoy watching pickup basketball and love celebrating the good shots, regardless of who makes them. I’ve always wanted to play, but I’m terrible at it.

As I watched, I took particular notice of how often the men touched one another. They blocked each other ferociously, looping arms around their quarry, touching lower backs, chests and forearms. At one point, one man held his hands on another man’s side as he came down from a layup. The players talked shit, scuffed their shoes on the concrete and rattled the chain. 

As they played with great joy, I couldn’t help but think that part of the joy lay in the touching. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, those outside prison walls learned what we inside have long known: social touch is vital for mental health and well-being. But touch inside, especially affectionate touch, is rare.

The basketball game offers a kind of permission for the men to touch each other. It feels at odds with the homophobia that is pervasive inside prison. Homosexuality in all of its forms is roundly condemned behind bars. 

Consider one example. I will never forget a neighbor in the cell adjacent to mine who was beaten and stabbed within an inch of his life. According to the assailant, the victim’s alleged transgression was “trying to start something,” or making what was perceived as a suggestive move. The assailant had yelled this story through his doorway to anyone listening. I’d overheard both parties drinking hooch for hours, laughing and telling stories — until they weren’t. 

“Stop! Stop! Stop!” the man yelled, in agony. Those pleas continued until he lost consciousness.

With this violent response to touching or even the possibility of touching in mind, I was struck by the ease and beauty with which these men on the court touched each other. I considered the other man on the yard who had threatened me with the touch of violence. The game of hoops served as a safe haven for a certain kind of touching: something joyous and playful, occasionally intense but rarely violent.

For some men, the mere sight of a basketball draws them to the court. For men inside, perhaps the promise of touch and being touched is part of the love of the game. In an environment devoid of physical affection, this makes sense. Perhaps the root of this desire is the primal need to be whole, to feel fully human.

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.

A. Smith is a writer incarcerated in Michigan.