Arkansas prison walls allow players to compete against each other; handball matches are successful behind bars

It took fast-paced, intensely competitive sport to captivate self-proclaimed “sports fanatic” Keith Parke over the 25 years he was intermittently locked up in the Arkansas prison system.

For Parke – who is 49, lives in Conway and says he has now cleaned up his life – the game he found most appealing, American handball, was rarely seen played outside the fences, even if he aroused fierce competition among his fellow inmates.

“The more you play, the more energy you find to go for the next ball,” Parke said.

Parke’s account of the game echoes the sentiments of Arkansas Department of Corrections officials, who said handball has become one of the most in-demand sports for prisoners over the past two decades.

The version of handball played in Arkansas prisons has nothing to do with the international team sport of the same name appearing on television every four years during the Summer Olympics.

The American version is similar to racquetball, but players only use their hands. The lack of a racket makes the sport accessible to jails and jails, where such equipment would be prohibited security.

Teams are made up of one or two players who take turns throwing the ball against a wall. As in racquetball, the ball must cross a service line before it can be returned.

The sport came to the prison system in 1993, when the Jaycees donated an 18-foot-tall concrete block wall and playing field built at the edge of the Cummins unit’s recreation yard . Since then, the department has added two more courts in Cummins and seven units across the state.

The department also plans to erect courts in the Wrightsville Unit in Pulaski County and the Tucker Unit in Jefferson County, according to prison spokesman Solomon Graves.

[EMAIL UPDATES: Sign up for free breaking news alerts + daily newsletters with top headlines]

Handball’s roots in America come from New York, where it was popular among Irish immigrants, according to a story on the US Handball Association website. However, similar games played against one or more walls date back much further and to many civilizations, including those of ancient Central America.

Randy Patoka, recreation programs manager at Cummins, the state’s largest prison, said he saw the growing popularity of handball in prison and helped usher in other sports inside prisons. fences, such as football and disc golf. Unit staff members refer to him as “coach”.

On a blustery December morning, with low gray clouds hugging the harvested fields of the delta and winds blowing westerly through the yard’s chain-link fence, Patoka shivered as he explained the game.

Played with racquetballs – which are larger, softer and less expensive than US Handball Association sanctioned balls – play can be resumed with as few as two players, which is good for the cold – or brutally hot – days when fewer inmates venture into the yard.

In good weather, however, between 40 and 50 people play regularly during the week, Cummins Warden William Straughn said.

“A lot of the time if there’s a yard call going on, somebody’s here playing,” Straughn said.

During the holidays, the Cummins unit holds tournaments to determine the top teams from the variety of sports on offer. Winners typically receive a share of the prison’s $800 annual budget, which is transferred to their commissioner accounts.

Handball attracts one of the stiffest competitions in the annual tournament, according to Patoka, with up to 80 entrants – usually more than softball. Yet neither comes close to the reigning king of prison yard sport – basketball.

Basketball competitions at Cummins regularly have about 120 participants, who compete in teams with a full roster and bench, Patoka said.

“Something more popular there will eventually spread here,” Patoka said.

Traditionally, a handball match is played until a team scores 21 points, although growing popularity and demand for limited space on the court have led to shorter matches at 15 points, according to Patoka.

The winning team retains control of the field.

Out of jail for four months, Parke said the popularity of handball and other prison sports “is a double-edged sword” for inmates expected to reintegrate into society.

As players improve and become engrossed in competition, the sport can create camaraderie as well as friendly rivalries, Parke said, but it can also become a daily habit that takes precedence over rehabilitation.

“You can drown out what you’ve done and forget the crimes you’ve committed,” Parke said.

Ultimately, Parke said it took the faith-based Pathway to Freedom program and less court time to get him on the right track.

Since his release, Parke said he had been sidelined by a broken arm, but was looking forward to playing racquetball or even handball – if he could find competition.

Handball remains a sport largely relegated to the coasts, according to Vern Roberts, director of the US Handball Association. Between the two varieties — New York is the epicenter of one-wall courts, while three-wall is the game of choice from the Midwest to the West Coast — the game attracts hundreds of thousands of players nationwide, said Roberts.

But the South was slower to catch on, and the American association had no contact with groups in Arkansas. Still, Roberts said he’s not surprised the sport has thrived behind bars.

“All you need is a ball and a wall, and you’ve got a lot of walls in jail,” Roberts said.

Subway on 27/12/2016