It’s a cold winter day in late December, but the hum of activity within Michigan City’s Indiana State Prison’s entrance makes things seem warmer indoors. That is until you reach the stark, blank steel that truly separates you from the outside world.
Today a team of young men is entering through a series of locks that most men see as the last stop before freedom is lost. But, these men are different.
The Grace College men’s basketball team is entering through the prison gates to play a local team that never travels, they only have home games. On this day, they are playing The Offenders, a team comprised of all inmates at the maximum security prison. In fact, everyone involved with the team, from the coach to the referees, color analysts and statisticians is incarcerated in the northern Indiana correctional facility.
Wide-eyed young college basketball players anxiously talk amongst themselves as they are led through metal detectors, body searches and prison personnel on their way to the recreational center basketball court, the home floor of The Offenders.
But, some have been here before, Grace College’s Coach Jim Kessler has been playing exhibition games against Indiana’s prisons’ teams since he played ball for Grace in 1967.
“When you go through those doors, as they clang shut, for some of these men, that’s the first time that they can’t just leave if they want to,” said Kessler, “I remember those feelings”.
And although the men playing on opposite teams on this day have had drastically different paths in life, Kessler acknowledges that they may not be so different, “Our guys have probably stolen an answer at some point, we all have maybe, and these guys stole a car. But I don’t think god cares between the two, either is a bad decision. Some of these guys have to live with that bad decision for the rest of their lives.”
When the game tips off, it becomes just that, a game. It’s no longer college prep versus convicts, it becomes something more pure. It’s just basketball. Two competitive and skilled teams vying for a win.
“We have a storied history (with the basketball program), It’s been going on a long time” said Mark Hubbard, the Recreation Coordinator at the Michigan City Prison.
But when pressed for how long, most come up with the same answer; as long as they can remember. For some of the inmates, that’s more telling of their own story than that of the basketball program.
Nearly seventy percent of the prisoners at the maximum security prison are there for a loss of life crime, be it as an accessory, through manslaughter or first-degree murder. With a per inmate average sentence of 52 years, nearly half of the 2000 prisoners housed in the facility will never leave.
Referee Keith Ware has been officiating Offender’s games for 35 years. He said he was sentenced as a 20 year old for accessory to murder, “39 years and 19 days ago, to be exact.” Ware said he used to ref for the pay, but as that has been reduced to a case of pop for every seven games officiated, he now looks at it as just another form of exercise, something to pass the time.
However, the Offenders game against Grace college offers some of the top competition of the year in this facility, this game becomes more meaningful for the players than just a way to exercise and pass the time.
“We usually win more than we lose,” said coach and former player Ronald Samford, “Grace and Bethel (College) are usually the teams that we have the greatest difficulty against. I don’t think we’ve ever beaten Grace.” When asked what coaching the offenders is like, Samford is quick to respond; “It’s hell,” he says with a laugh, “we try to make the team the best we can, but we don’t have the necessary practices. We could be on lock-down tomorrow.”
After a hard fought contest, Grace College again goes on to win the game this year, but coach Kessler wasn’t necessarily looking for a gauge on his team’s play out of the event.
“Sport transcends a lot of barriers, when you take the court and play, if you love the game, you respect it,” said Kessler. As the Coach finishes his thought, he breaks down, pauses, and continues with a smile and a tear; “You can jump across a lot of barriers when you play on the court, and you leave respecting each other. That’s the way it’s supposed to be and that’s the way we feel when we come here and play. When we leave, we think; there but by the grace of God go I.”