“Sadly, most inmates in correctional institutions come from very difficult backgrounds. For much of their lives positive guidance has been limited. One of the many benefits of pickleball is that the game can be used as a metaphor for teaching ‘life skills’ such as being a good teammate, following the rules and thinking about consequences.”
These are the words of a man spending time with people most of us hope we do not encounter. Driven by his love of the game and his willingness to help others, Roger BelAir went into an environment few will ever experience: Chicago’s Cook County Jail.
Why? To teach the game of pickleball to dozens of inmates.
Bit by the Pickleball Bug
Roger began playing pickleball about six years ago. He took to the sport quickly and realized that just about anyone can play the game. It’s easy to learn, low impact on the joints, social and—most importantly—fun. Since then, he plays practically daily and frequently competes in tournaments.
Roger’s love for pickleball resulted in sharing his passion with others. With a background in professional speaking, he started conducting clinics at local recreation facilities. From there he expanded to teaching at corporate retreats and destination health spas like Rancho La Puerta.
Eventually, a chance episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes opened up a new avenue.
An Idea is Born
One Sunday evening, Roger watched an episode of 60 Minutes profiling the Sheriff of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, Tom Dart. It appeared from the piece that inmates spent much of their time eating, sleeping, watching TV or playing cards.
Roger thought, “If the inmates played pickleball, they’d get exercise, interact with others from different backgrounds and would learn ‘life skills’ in a positive setting.”
Following the airing of 60 Minutes, Roger contacted Sheriff Dart. He encouraged him and his staff to consider pickleball for the many benefits it offers.
A Safer Alternative
One of the aspects Roger brought to the attention of Sheriff Dart and his staff was the safety of pickleball. When exercise in correctional settings does take place, it’s often basketball.
“The game can be aggressive and is usually dominated by big and strong men,” says Roger. “As you’d expect, anger and frustration can boil over onto the court.”
In fact, injuries are such a problem that many correctional facilities are cutting back on basketball as a form of recreation.
A major difference between pickleball and basketball lies in the equipment. Little damage can be done to players by a portable net, plastic ball and paddles. Additionally, there is no physical contact between the players as in basketball.
The leadership at Cook County Jail was open to allowing pickleball into their facility. Before he knew it, Roger was on a flight to Chicago where he would spend a week working with inmates and staff on the basics of pickleball.
Welcome to Chicago
As Roger put into perspective, “Today in the United States there are over two million people incarcerated. 98% of them will eventually be released back into society. They’ll be in our shopping malls, driving on our freeways and in our parks where children are playing. I’m not a bleeding heart. I’m a realist. If we can help these individuals become better people while they’re on the inside, it will be safer for all of us when they are released to the outside.”
Chicago, in particular, has a challenge with crime. This past year there were more homicides in Chicago than in New York and Los Angeles combined. Each year, approximately 70,000 men and women are admitted to Cook County Jail to await their day in court.
For one week, Cook County Jail was where Roger BelAir got in his daily workout of pickleball.
“For my own safety, I worked with the ‘best of the worst.’ I was scared only once. It happened in the maximum security unit Division 10 when the officer left to go to the restroom. Suddenly I realized I was alone with 24 inmates, many charged with murder. Everything turned out fine, of course!”
Pickleball in Chicago
Roger has taught hundreds of people to play pickleball, but teaching in Chicago was a different experience. Initially he felt the inmates’ apprehension.
As soon as he walked in, they were aloof and distant.
“You could tell by their body language. Many had their arms crossed or wouldn’t make eye contact with me.”
After a few minutes, their walls began to fall down. By the end of the clinic, their demeanor was the opposite extreme. There were big smiles, excitement and lots of laughter.
“By the end I compared it to watching a group of 5-year-olds enjoying the novelty of a special experience, like Christmas. I’m certain getting exercise was part of the reason,” says Roger. “Perhaps more important was the mental aspect. Once they stepped onto the court—just like the rest of us—they forgot their problems and focused only on hitting a plastic ball over the net. They were living in the moment.”
With recreation times limited to 90 minutes, Roger had to improvise in order to get all 24 inmates at a time playing on the three courts available.
As Roger admits, “The rules weren’t followed to the letter, but it didn’t matter because everyone had so much fun.”
After the first game ended he shouted, “ ‘Okay, everybody! Group hug!’ You could tell the prisoners thought I had lost my mind. They were likely thinking, ‘Who is this guy and I ain’t givin’ nobody a hug.’ But slowly they came forward and joined me at the center of the court. I raised my paddle over the center court, they raised theirs and we did the traditional high five with our paddles touching.”
Smiles from the inmates and undoubtedly a sense of relief. An awkward moment turned into a touching one. After subsequent games one of the players would always yell, “Group hug, everybody!” They’d meet at the center of the court and tap their paddles.
Afterwards, many of the men lined up to thank Roger and shake his hand. Some said, “God bless you, Roger.” It’s an experience he’ll never forget.
“I’m impressed with the leadership and staff at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. They do an exceptional job in a challenging environment. The head of a maximum security unit even played pickleball with the inmates. What a terrific role model he is for the rest of the staff. This is the type of behavior that builds bridges and opens lines of communication; much better than the mindset of, ‘Us against them.’ “
The Future of Pickleball in Jails
While Roger hopes the experience touched the lives of some, it has impacted him greatly. So much so that he’s continuing this program in other facilities. He has reached out to the Washington State Department of Corrections which operates fifteen facilities throughout the state.
So far, the process is going smoothly. The program coordinator for the Washington State Department of Corrections is supportive of including pickleball in their recreational program.
“Pickleball is a simple game and easy to teach, as long as you’re passionate about it,” Roger says. “Skill level and teaching experience really don’t matter. All you need is a willingness to share your passion.”
His hope is that other players will decide to teach the game in their communities.
He adds, “It would be wonderful if others contacted their local correctional facility, Senior Center, or Boys and Girls Club and said, ‘Let me tell you about a terrific sport called pickleball!’ ”