On August 8, the California Institution for Men at Chino erupted in a violent, eleven-hour race riot (primarily Latinos vs. African-Americans) that resulted in 200 inmates being injured, 55 of them requiring hospitalization, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.
With California in the throes of the greatest budget crisis in its history—with schools, government offices, the DMV, social services all facing cutbacks—Chino prison had reduced its staff while simultaneously filling the facility with almost twice as many prisoners (5,900) as it was designed to accommodate. To anyone with eyes and a brain, this was a simmering pressure-cooker, ready to blow.
Indeed, penologists had been predicting for months that something like this, or worse, was bound to happen. Six-thousand men crammed into a facility designed to hold half that? What did they expect? Of course, politics being politics, every bureaucrat in the system—from Governor Schwarzenegger on down—will have a perfectly reasonable explanation why this wasn’t their fault.
As disturbing as these riots were, the mention of Chino prison nonetheless triggered some pleasant memories for me and my former labor union brothers. It transported us back to the 1980s and early 1990s, when Local 672’s Boys of Summer regularly played the Chino softball team. Yes, the inmates had their own squad, one that competed against visiting teams from all over Southern California.
To schedule a game with the prisoners, all you had to do was request it. You telephoned the prison, spoke to the Recreation Director, submitted the names and drivers license numbers of your roster, and awaited clearance. The background check usually took a week or so.
Concerned with security—apparently worried that contraband would be smuggled in, or nefarious deals would be transacted—the authorities wanted to know your and your family’s incarceration history. Anyone who was found to have been released from a California prison within the last six months wasn’t allowed inside.
Over the years, we played Chino more than a dozen times. Our team was respectable—nothing to brag about, but able to regularly finish in the upper half of mid-level industrial leagues in Orange County. In fast-pitch softball, you get rated solely on the quality of your pitching (not your shortstop or centerfielder). While our pitching was generally good, it was never great.
Remarkably, even though talented fast-pitch pitchers were at a premium, Chino somehow managed to find convicted felons who knew how—or could be taught—to throw, because they always seemed to have outstanding pitching. True, they had two or three thousand arms to choose from.
Their position players were slick, well-drilled, and disciplined. These guys knew the fundamentals of baseball, they played smart, hustled on and off the field, and rarely argued with the umpires. A classy group. While we always looked forward to playing Chino, and while most of the contests were fairly close, alas, the prisoners won every damned game.
All the umpires were inmates, as were the spectators, which usually numbered two or three hundred; they sat in bleachers adjacent to the infield or on the grass along the foul lines, grouped according to racial lines. The racial divide was too conspicuous not to recognize. Although the team itself was fully integrated, the whites, Latinos and African-Americans all sat separately.
The only exception was the older men. Interestingly, while none of the younger guys mingled, when it came to the middle-aged and older inmates, many of them sat together in multi-racial groups, suggesting they had more in common with men their own age than the Young Turks of their own race.
Before each game, the visiting team received a “Welcome to Chino Prison” orientation, which consisted mainly of a list of things not to do: Don’t mouth off. Don’t argue. Don’t wander off the field. Don’t leave your belongings unattended. Don’t accept anything from an inmate. Don’t pass anything to an inmate, including cigarettes, food or articles of clothing (prisoners were always hassling us for our caps and jackets).
We were told that if we were caught passing anything, the game would immediately be stopped and our team would be sent home in disgrace. While they encouraged us to “socialize” with the inmates, we were warned not to ask what they were in for, unless they volunteered that information. Asking them what crime they’d committed was a breach of etiquette.
I was our team’s catcher, and over the years I became acquainted with one of Chino’s catchers, a young Latino fellow covered in tattoos, who was a good athlete and a tremendous hitter. We never exchanged names, but we recognized each other and always shook hands. He convinced me to leave my glove and mask on home plate between innings so we could share them. He had his own gear, of course, but these guys loved using any equipment from the “outside.”
Because the game of baseball is universal, and because it more or less transcends culture and sociological barriers, if you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think we were playing an industrial league team rather than a group of convicted felons. The game is the game. That said, one incident did occur that reminded me I was in a different milieu.
It was during one of the few contests that were lopsided. We were in the third or fourth inning of what turned out to be a rout, already behind by a score of 9-0. Our pitcher was having a horrible time of it—not only walking batter after batter, but getting clobbered whenever he put one over the plate. It was painful, it was humiliating, and there was nothing we could do about it.
Then, inexplicably, the umpire, this African-American man in his forties, began calling virtually every pitch a “strike”—even ones so far outside the zone, I had to leave my crouch to glove them. Having these pitches called strikes was not only ridiculous, it was embarrassing.
Finally, after an inning or two of this, a Chino batter protested. He didn’t shout, he didn’t get all hostile or confrontational, but it was obvious he was frustrated. After another bad call, he turned to the umpire and asked sharply, “You called that one a strike?”
“Yeah,” the ump repeated, “it was a strike.” Then, as I was about to sheepishly return the ball to the pitcher, the umpire quietly said to the batter, “You guys are way ahead, man. What’s the difference?” I cringed. I momentarily froze, not daring to look up at the batter’s face. This was prison logic—old-fashioned schoolyard justice—in its purest form.
Even though it made a mockery of baseball “integrity” (and was something you would never see in any industrial league game, no matter how lopsided the score), this umpire, bless his heart, was trying to help us.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americans”) and writer, was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com