Example of front and back yards. The small white squares spaced around the track represent exercise stations.
At Level I and II general population facilities the great outdoors that is accessible to inmates is divided into the front and back yards. The front yard is the area in front of each housing unit and while the rules at each facility vary, the front yard is usually restricted to the residents of that unit. Like a front porch it contains benches and maybe picnic tables and phones. There may also be a basketball court. At times this area may be open while the backyard is closed.
The backyard is more like a park or playground. There will be baseball diamonds, soccer fields, horseshoe pits, a weight pit, benches, tables and exercise equipment. There will also be a walking path. The backyards vary greatly in size from facility to facility. Some were referred to as “the back 40” with plenty of room to spread out. Others were only a couple of acres, and there was no way to find space for a little peace and quiet.
The Prisoner Benefit Fund (PBF) at each facility pays from recreational facilities and equipment. The weight pits that I saw were unheated roofed pavilions with chain link fence walls, which could be wrapped in plastic during the winter months to keep out the elements. It was not your typical health club, just a limited number and variety of benches and racks of dumb bells and barbells. The weight pit is a very popular exercise destination. So much so that it must be signed up for through the Athletic Director’s office at many facilities. Further since it is a privilege it is often tied to a requirement that the inmate be ticket free for some period of time to be eligible for the weight pit call out.
Rain or shine, hot or cold, guys will be out there lifting iron. Inmates can purchase weight pit gloves through a catalog vendor. Some facilities will have weight lifting belts available, but that is about it. Guys take the weight pit seriously with workout routines and partners to push them and spot for them. Also, you need to have someone to watch your back, since some of the worst incidents of assault that I heard about occurred in the weight pit.
Team sports like softball, basketball, soccer, and volley ball will have organized leagues where competition will have a season and a playoff. At some facilities the champions may even receive some type of prize to go along with the bragging rights. Given the nature of inmates, the games could sometimes get a little rough and arguments could be fierce. The inmates would sometimes have to self-police in order to prevent a situation from getting out of hand and having the administration cancel to rest of the season.
The walking/running track generally circles the perimeter of the yard and along the track will be various workout stations. At some facilities this may only be a simple chin-up bar, at others there be more elaborate setup including spots for chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, stationary bikes, rowing, and other workout contraptions.
At the last facility I was at the workout equipment was really nice stuff like you would find at a city’s community center fitness trail. Made up of tubular steel set into concrete pads. The variety of equipment really provided for a full body isometric workout circuit as you went from station to station around the track. But I can guarantee that the designers of the equipment never thought about how inmates would find creative alternative ways of using the equipment to either work alternate muscle groups or increase the resistance to increase the workout intensity. This unfortunately had the side effect of increased breakage of equipment that should have otherwise been nearly indestructible.
Examples of the type of exercise equipment installed at the last Level I that I served time at. A different machine was located at each workout station around the track.
The work to install and repair this equipment is performed by the facility maintenance crew. This work is not considered critical and is performed by inmates working under the supervision of a maintenance staff member, who generally only performs work for the PBF on overtime. Again, another opportunity to take advantage of prisoners by charging the PBF overtime rates for the maintenance staff member while the inmates only receive their standard rate.
In good weather the yard looks and sounds a lot like a school playground. Groups congregate together to plot & scheme, shoot the breeze, brag about the past and dream about the future. The yard is where you go to catch up your acquaintances or accomplices from other housing units to exchange information and gossip. It is the one place where you can truly choose the mates you want to hang out with.
Cameras watch and COs circulate to keep an eye on activities, bust up overly large groups and conduct random body searches looking for weapons and contraband. The yard is a place where you need to keep your head on swivel. I’ve seen more than one guy get hit by a foul ball or a homerun that he didn’t see coming. It is not a good idea to accidentally walk up on somebody from behind when they stop abruptly while walking. The yard is where deals are made, goods trade hands, and favors exchanged. I’ve seen guys smoking marijuana, engaging in sex, fights, and stabbings. The yard is safest in the morning and nothing good happens after dark.
For the 8 years I was in prison I never saw the stars. The facilities are lit up like Times Square. All around the perimeter to illuminate the fences and the no-man’s land, both inside and out. The yards are so well lit that you can read a book outdoors after the sun sets. Too bad the night is the only darkness banished in prison.