Prisoners confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons are generally allowed regular access to recreation activities.  With the exception of those inmates housed in special-purpose facilities or in Special Housing Units, most inmates have a variety of exercise and leisure-based opportunities.

The Big Yard

Virtually every general population prison in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has a large outdoor recreation area, the “big yard,” in prison parlance.  While life in the yard isn’t usually as dramatic as it is in Hollywood — there are usually no Billy-club toting guards standing every few feet, nor concrete stadiums in which to sit and conspire — the overall tone of the yard is largely dependent on the security level of the institution.  In higher security federal prisons, like United States Penitentiaries (called “USPs”), there are metal detectors at each gate and an ominous gun tower looming overhead.  In medium-security federal prisons (called “FCIs”), there might be double rows of fencing topped with razor wire, with a chasm of additional spools of razor wire in case anyone makes it over the first fence.  At lower security levels (low security “FCIs” and “FPCs”), the yard might not even have a fence at all.

Across all security levels, there are some common features: a basketball court or two, a handball court, and a soccer/football field.  Many facilities have a dedicated area for softball, a popular prison pastime.

Some facilities may have a tennis court, and bocce and volleyball areas are common, too.  Even rarer are the traditional prison weight piles; while there are still some federal prisons that have weights available, the number has steadily dwindled since the late 1990s, when a budget rider passed by Congress prohibited spending federal funds on such equipment (and other “luxury” items, like electric guitars and premium cable TV).  While the congressman who sponsored this prohibition only lasted one term, his legacy lives on in the form of wide restrictions on recreation equipment, which, ironically, is paid for by profits from the inmate commissary, not from taxpayer monies.

Inside Recreation

Most Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities also have an inside recreation area.  BOP policy dictates that a certain amount of leisure type programs be available, and many institutions have such classes, like leather-crafting, painting, crochet, etc.

Some institutions have televisions available and tables for playing cards and board games.  Pool tables are found in most institutions, as are areas for music class and band practices.

At some institutions, there is a wellness room with exercise bikes, treadmills, and other fitness equipment, all of which have their electronic components removed prior to their placement in the prison.  Aerobic classes and yoga are popular, as are high-intensity fitness groups, officially sanctioned and otherwise.

Virtually every Federal Bureau of Prisons facility has a gymnasium where basketball is played, along with volleyball and other sports on occasion.  Basketball leagues, like softball, are a staple of federal prison recreation.  The “A” league games can draw hundreds of inmate spectators, complete with uniformed players, referees, announcers, scoreboards, and music thumping through PA speakers.

Social Interactions

At every federal prison, the recreation area is the social center.  Beyond sports, exercise, and leisure activities, “Rec” is where inmates come together to visit with friends, operate bartering schemes, and otherwise engage in social activities.  The yard is where alliances are forged, and, unfortunately, where many disputes are settled.

For the newly-arriving inmates, the sage advice is to sit back and simply observe the goings-on.  Every prison has its own highly sensitive culture, involving unwritten protocols, social expectations, and ethical codes.  In some facilities, areas of the yard are rigidly staked out by racial or geographical groups; pool tables are “reserved” for certain regular players, and exercise equipment is used via a strict rotation of users.  Learning the lay of the land is the best advice.

Most longtime prisoners will agree that the recreation area can be a lifesaving respite from the stress of prison life, a place where one can involve oneself in getting fit, enjoying a diversion or hobby, or simply breathe some fresh air.  A place where one can be just a little freer.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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