VICE is looking inside America's prison system in the week leading up to our Special Report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9pm EST to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
"Handball was my best friend in prison," says Franky Carrillo. He's standing in the shade of a tall tree in a quiet park. We're in a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles, a few feet from an empty handball court and a long way from the wide open yard at Folsom State Prison, where Franky served a long stretch of his 20 years in the California correctional system.
While we spoke, a teacher pulled a group of preschoolers down the sidewalk on a wagon, and Franky turned, mid-conversation, to wave and say hi. He and his friend Carlos Cervantes had spent the afternoon demonstrating the simple, subtle, and deeply meaningful game of prison handball.
After playing a few games themselves, Franky skunked me 7-0. Carlos, at least, was nice enough to gift me a few points.
Prison handball is a version of American handball, the kind you see played in city parks, where two, or sometimes four, participants smack a small black or blue racquetball against a wall. It's not the handball played in grade schools with a big red ball; it has nothing but a name in common with the handball played in Europe, which looks like a cross between basketball and soccer.
Prison handball is a different thing—addictive, elegantly simple, and supremely spare. There is nothing in it except what is absolutely necessary. Hand. Ball. Wall. No need, even, for rackets.
When Franky and Carlos were locked up, handball was not just a sport. It was an organizing principle of life: a way to survive, to maintain both physical and emotional health in a place that can suck the spirit out of a person. "Handball allowed me to not only just exist, because that's all I was really doing in prison, but it gave me the opportunity to feel that I was alive," Franky says.
In 1991, when Franky was 16, he was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he didn't commit. It took two decades for him to be exonerated. Now he's a college student at 41. He's got bushy eyebrows and and a youthful face, and even though a big chunk of his life was ripped from him by bad police work and a flawed legal system, he is truly, sincerely, not angry. In a lull in our conversation, he drops and does some casual pushups. He's holding a white glove that he uses to play handball—the same one he had in Folsom.
The handball courts at Folsom are located right beside the prison's kitchen, so they also serve as a parking lot for trucks delivering food. When there's a delivery, play has to stop until everything is unloaded.
But usually there are no trucks in the way. Usually, crowds gather around the courts for hours. Some are players, some are "looky-loos," as Franky calls them. Some are gambling. Some are soldiers lurking, bearing hidden blades. One guy might bring out a boombox and put on oldies or rap. There can be a social club aspect to the games. As is usually the case in prison, that aspect is replicated on both sides of a racial divide. Handball is strictly segregated. There's a court for black inmates and a court for Latino and white inmates.
"Your standard dorky white guy up to your Aryan brotherhood white guy, or whatever gang or denominational whatever, you're just white," Franky says. "And whites are allowed to play with the Mexicans."
Winner stays on. It's up to the next guy in line to judge what's in or out. If you're not paying attention, you will be exposed. The painted lines on the asphalt courts are often faded, and handball players are not above trying to talk a new or weak-minded judge into making a bad call. Anything goes on the court. Shit talking is extreme. Mind games and "incidental" contact. There's a manhole cover on the Latino/white court at Folsom that makes the ball bounce weird. Players aim for it.
Different players have different styles: some wear gloves, some wrap their hands with handkerchiefs, and some play barehand. The old guys win with skill; the young guys win with speed and power.
There's a language to the game, too. The judge is the telly. On a ball out, you shout bola. Game point is changa. For example, when Franky and I played, he had me at changa-zero. Then he won. But handball is also a gentleman's sport, which meant Franky and Carlos repeatedly told me "good shot," even when I didn't make one.
"It goes beyond the game and it becomes almost like a psychological warfare," Franky says, "on a silly-ass handball court, with a silly-ass blue ball."
One thing Franky and Carlos both did was refer to handball as not just a sport, but a place. Like the game is a physical or mental space unto itself within the prison. Handball is a place to release aggression, and a place to posture, and a place to prove something to yourself and others. It's also a place to learn what it takes to survive in the world you inhabit. Which is prison.
"You start seeing how life unfolds," says Carlos.
Carlos has short hair and light colored eyes. He doesn't talk as much as Franky, but when he does, he's deliberate, like he knows he has time to finish his thought. He works for a restorative justice nonprofit, and among other things, he gives rides home from prison to newly released inmates. He did ten years himself, starting when he was 16, after pleading guilty to an attempted murder charge.
"When you're playing handball, you have to use your peripheral [vision]. In prison you have to always be watching your back, always be watching what's going on because a lot of times riots pop off, fights, and you want to see, you want to be aware, and handball really teaches you that. You start looking at your peripheral. Now when I drive I'm looking at my peripheral. I don't even need the mirrors for a lot of my turns. I look at them for safety, but your peripheral tells you a lot. It tells you your environment."
When Franky and Carlos talk about handball, they seem to shift naturally in and out of metaphor. That's because in prison handball, everything stands for something, and who you are on the handball court stands for who you are as a man.
"The sport really dictates your ranking among your peers," says Franky. "So people equate a good handball player to a guy who's smart, or a guy who can fight, or a guy who can sort of last... it sort of colors the way people think about you in that environment."
New York City handball court. Photo by Missy S via Flickr/Creative Commons.
But it's not just your external status, it's who you are inside. All the old cliches about sports building character, sports creating purpose—they never sound truer than when spoken by an inmate who credits sports with getting him through a prison stint.
Carlos, for example, never played sports before he was incarcerated. He didn't make the junior high basketball team. He didn't get chosen in P.E. He had a surgery when he was 13 and spent six months in a wheelchair. He laughs and says that to this day, he walks kind of like an ostrich. But with handball, he saw himself as an athlete. He would play three hours a day, sometimes more.
"It sort of starts boosting you up," he says. "Nobody used to pick me, and now people are picking me."
Neither Franky nor Carlos played handball before they did time. They both remember seeing the sport around their neighborhoods, but it felt off limits to them. "You sort of knew it was not for your typical kid on the block," Franky says. Carlos agrees: "You'd see it and it was always the OGs playing."
Outside of New York City, where handball is commonly played in parks, and aside from a few tournaments organized by the American Handball Association, the sport is relegated to the margins. Prison itself is a margin.
Franky says he's been thinking of forming a kind of handball social club for ex-inmates on the outside. He figures that if guys like he and Carlos are yearning to play, other guys who did time might be too. He's also thinking about how to get a handball tournament organized on Alcatraz Island. He just visited a few months ago, and the courts are still there, he says. All they'd need to do is dust them off.
"I'm grateful man," Franky says. "Handball is what really saved my life, it really protected me and allowed me to mature and develop. Because I went in when I was 16 years old and didn't come out until I was 37. So to have played handball throughout the majority of my incarceration, it sort of became where it all happened."