NPHS Staff Column- What my three days in prison taught me



FILE – This June 1, 2018, file photo, shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa. The first phase of transferring more than 2,500 inmates from the 89-year-old state prison at Graterford to the long-delayed $400 million SCI Phoenix prison began Wednesday, July 11, 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which plans to bus hundreds of inmates a day to the new prison facility about a mile down the road until all are relocated. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File)

When I was a teenager, my American Legion baseball team played a game per year (three total for me) inside Graterford Prison, a maximum security prison in Skippack, PA.  Like many teenage boys, I thought I was tough and could handle myself no matter what happened. Within one second of stepping inside the prison and being among the inmates I recognized two things:

  1. I wasn’t tough.  
  2. No way I would be able to handle myself in a prison.

It was a big eye-opener for me.  I was never a rule breaker but my three games in prison pounded home even more the need to stay out of trouble.

Looking back, there were some other lessons learned.  Here are four.

  1. Know who your real competition is.  I stated earlier that I thought I was pretty tough.  I had grown up a wrestler and thought I’d be ok if any physical confrontation ever occurred.  But that view was formed based on who I had surrounded myself with in my neighborhood. I may have been considered tough in my neighborhood but I had never lived in another neighborhood.  Clearly, my definition of “tough” was very different than the tough I saw in prison.  

In business and sports, you have to realize that your true competition may be someone you’ve never met or seen before.  For example, the top baseball player in Pennsylvania may not even be in the top 25 if he lived in Florida, Texas, or California.  On that note, he may not even be in the top 100 prospects if he lived in the Dominican Republic!  

Whether it’s an athlete working out during the off-season or a business owner planning for the future, both need to understand that their true competition may not be within their field of vision and need to plan accordingly.

  1. Things can go downhill quickly if you don’t pay attention to the little things. We often have an image in our head as to what prison inmates at a maximum security prison look like.  Mine was the rough, biker-gang type. Bald with tattoos, gigantic muscles, etc. There certainly was plenty of those types in the prison but there were many others wearing the brown jumpsuits.  Some looked like accountants. Put others in a tweed jacket and they could have easily passed as college professors. It struck me they very well could be, in fact, former accountants and professors.  Everyday people who just made a big mistake. I often thought that if I never killed someone or robbed a bank that prison would never be in my future. That, of course, is not a very high bar to jump over.  But some were in there for DUI. Others for skimming money from a business. Maybe an alcohol-fueled violent act. Things that wouldn’t necessarily come to mind when I thought of behaviors that could land someone in prison.

We often think if we just take care of the big things, everything will turn out ok.  However, when we look at the most significant events or decisions in our lives, they often involve things that barely register on the radar at the time.  It was something small that didn’t seem important. This is why people say that a reputation can take a lifetime to build and a few seconds to destroy.

Pay attention to the little things and the bigger issues largely will take care of themselves.

  1. Good advice can come from anyone at anytime.  Picture this.  We were 16-18 year old kids surrounded by hundreds of convicts, many of whom were incarcerated for violent behavior.  And there was no buffer between us. No fence. No razor wire. Nothing. Our team bench was the first row of a section of bleachers.  Inmates filled up the rest of the stands all around us. Hundreds more were surrounding the field and backstop as spectators. Even the umpires were convicts.  Believe it or not, there were no prison guards on the field. Not one. The other coach was a prison employee so besides him and our team and coaches, everyone else was a convict.  The only guard I ever saw was up in a tower overlooking the field. I vividly remember him reading his newspaper while we played. This, as you can image, was more than a little alarming to me.  If one of the convicts grabbed me, there was no way on earth anyone was going to get to me in time to save my life. “On edge,” to put it mildly, was a good way of describing my demeanor.

That is why I nearly lost my bowels when an inmate behind me in the stands tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey 10.” (my number was #10 at the time).  I turned around thinking the next couple seconds may be my last few seconds of my short life.  When I turned, I looked into the eyes of a very hardened individual who clearly fit my new definition of “tough.”  He said the following: “Hey, look around while you are in here.  This is not a place you want to come to. Stay in school.  Listen to your parents and coaches and don’t make the mistakes we made.”

We often dismiss people out-of-hand because of how they look or whether or not we think they can provide any value to us.  “What can a hardened criminal teach me?”  In reality, he taught me a lot.  I had heard what he said from countless people prior to that but it had a much bigger impact coming from him.  

A former hitting coach of mine in professional baseball said “You may learn more about hitting from a cab driver than someone like me.  He might say something about relaxing or not worrying about things and you may finally apply it to hitting and start to excel.  You never know.”

  1. Stick to your principles.  As I said earlier, inmates were the umpires for the games.  In one particular game, I was playing shortstop and a batter for the prison team hit a ball in the outfield gap and rolled forever.  The runner flew around the bases for any inside-the-park homerun. However, he missed second base on his way around. I noticed it and looked up at one of the base umps who was in the area as well.  He saw it too. We both made eye contact which solidified that both of us knew the other had seen the same thing. The runner touched home plate and his team and all the hundreds of convicts exploded in cheering since it was late in the game and his run put them into the lead.  Before the next pitch, I told the pitcher to step off the pitching rubber to appeal second base. He tossed me the ball, I stepped on second base, and I said to the umpire “the batter missed second base.”  

Now, before I say what happened next, let’s review the situation and put yourself in the umpire’s shoes.  The runner missed the base and the ump knew it. The umpire knows that the batter should be called out. He also knows there were two outs before the hit so if he calls the runner out, the inning is over and no run scores.  He also has to know what the reaction is going to be on the part of the runner (a convicted criminal) and the hundreds of spectators (all convicted criminals). I’m sure he also understood that after the game is over, he will have to go back into the prison buildings to eat, sleep, etc. among these soon-to-be-livid inmates.

I remember putting that all together and thinking to myself that there is no chance this umpire is going to call the runner out.  It would be totally against any sense of self preservation. And I would not have blamed him nor would I have argued at all if he signaled the runner safe.

But he didn’t.  He immediately called the runner out to end the inning and cancel the go-ahead run.  This proceeded to start a near riot in Graterford Prison. Rocks were actually thrown.  For the next several minutes while the batter ran onto the field to argue and spectators threatening the umpires life, I actually wished he had called him safe.  I remember scanning the area and literally looked for where I would run to WHEN the inmates storm the field. Thankfully, they did not and the game continued. Staring down a strong potential of bodily harm, this umpire made the right call.  He did the right thing. He respected the game and it’s principle of fair play and the importance of following the rules. Even in the face of severe criticism.

How many of you would have made that call?

If you cannot identify your principles, decision making becomes much tougher.  In the words of Alexander Hamilton, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

I often hear students say, “I’ll never need this so why do I have to learn it?”  The answer is that none of us have a crystal ball. We don’t know where life will take us.  We’ll experience many events and meet many people over time. I certainly never thought spending a few hours in a prison would have taught me so much.  Each event and every person has the potential to teach us something – sometimes many things.

It starts with being open to learning.