The California correctional officer sits at his desk on an elevated platform in the gymnasium at Soledad State Prison. “People don’t believe me when I tell them what my day job is,” he says. “But I really do watch guys play soccer.”
Judging by the quality of play on a recent July morning, an excellent place in Monterey County to watch the sport is at the local prison’s indoor soccer league.
Entering Soledad State (official name: Correctional Training Facility) starts as any visit to prison might: by passing through a hallway and a series of clanking metal doors.
From there, handlers lead the way outdoors, across a recreation yard. There is exercise equipment, some palm trees and inmates whose outfits are so customized they would seem to defy any prison dress code that’s in place: pant legs fold up or flayed open, shirts half tucked in, tank tops and several kinds of headgear.
This part of the prison is a Sensitive Needs Yard, which means that all the inmates here have been separated from the general population for their own safety. The reasons they would likely be targeted vary – some have been convicted of sex crimes against children, many have dropped out of gangs, others have been deemed snitches.
We enter a gym with a concrete floor and no windows. The guard on the platform appears to be the only guard in the room. There are dozens of inmates. Two teams are on the court, distinguishable by their jerseys. Those wearing green are Leones and those wearing orange are Fantasmas – the 4th seed Lions versus the Ghosts, which are 7th in the table.
The names of seven out of the eight teams in the league are in Spanish, reflecting the popularity of the sport in Latin America and the fact that Latinos are the largest racial group in the state’s prison system. The name of the eighth team is the number “43.” That’s a reference in honor of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico who were abducted and disappeared in 2014. Coming off an 11-2 victory the previous day, 43 is the dominant team in the league. But they don’t play until later.
An inmate wearing the black and white stripes of a referee – the players run the league themselves, rotating responsibilities like refereeing and score-keeping – blows a whistle to open the first of four games scheduled for today.
“When you are playing, you forget that you are in prison.”
On both teams, the forward players are unselfish as they run up the length of the floor and back down to help with defense. Their passes connect well and they take shots at the goal only when they see a clear path to the net. There are no desperation kicks of an amateur. For most of the game, the ball stays low to the ground, which is another way to gauge the skill level; it’s panic that would typically cause a player to send the ball upward.
“I am just surprised how good they are at ball movement,” says Ike Dodson, a former sports journalist now working as a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections’ Sacramento headquarters.
The game reaches a 1-1 tie, but then the Fantasmas score an own goal when one of their players kicks the ball and it bounces back off someone’s foot and into the net. In indoor soccer, the ball is weighted and therefore almost painful to kick, which slows down the pace of the game and partially tempers the erratic bounciness of a ball moving in a confined space.
The uncharacteristic mistake could have embarrassed the player, but the Fantasmas’ bench smooths over the incident with a few cries of encouragement: “¡Vamos!”
All morning long, there are no instances of whining, flopping or taking cheap shots. The collegial atmosphere undercuts the typical image of a prison. “It’s a lot more sportsmanlike than what you see on the outside,” Dodson says.
When the game is over with a Leones victory, a sweaty but 37-year-old inmate by the name of Isidro Vazquez from the winning team approaches the sidelines a smile. He takes off his jersey and adjusts his headband. He points to his Marine Corps tattoo and explains, “That’s why you see my enthusiasm on the court.” Vazquez says he used to drive convoys through bomb-studded roads in Iraq and got charged for an assault and sentenced to prison after getting back home.
“When you are playing, you forget that you are in prison,” he says. “The friendship and camaraderie gives you confidence.”
During the game, a referee gave Vazquez a yellow card for entering the court too soon. But he says he didn’t mind. It’s a matter of maintaining order: “We know we have to keep ourselves under control if we want to keep having a program.”