A background in professional public speaking came in handy back in 2017 when Edmonds resident Roger BelAir stood before a wall of men in prison garb at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. “They were holding their arms across their chests, with poor eye contact,” he recalled — pretty much a typical response to the idea of teaching pickleball to guys behind bars.
The quirky game that’s played with a paddle and wiffle ball has been a favorite of BelAir’s since he took it up in 2011. “It’s fun, easy on the joints and almost anyone can play it,” he said. (See our earlier story on BelAir and pickleball in Edmonds here.)
BelAir got the idea to take his game into the prisons after watching a 60 Minutes television program on the serious challenges facing the Chicago jail. “I thought pickleball would be tremendous for them,” he said. He wrote a letter to the head of the jail, assuming he might not get a response. “I thought they might think it was a crank letter,” but he did hear back and before too long found himself in front of inmates, making the pickleball pitch. “I’d never been in prison before,” he said. It was a bit intimidating.
After an awkward start, the prisoners took to it, as he knew they would. “For a little while, they didn’t have to focus on their problems,” he said. “It relieves the stress of prison and pent up emotion.”
That was the start of his odyssey and it’s really taken off. BelAir has now visited nearly a dozen prisons across the nation, including the infamous Riker’s Island in New York. “I taught what they call ‘detainees’ — people waiting for trial — and inmates as well as officers, staff and wardens.” He believes it opens lines of communication among people who do not entirely trust each other.
“Some of these inmates won’t even talk to each other because they belong to opposite gangs but then they start playing together and laughing together,” BelAir said. “It’s a joy to watch.”
Once, he got an email from a prison officer who told him inmates go the extra mile to keep their recreation time, knowing that if they misbehave, it goes away. The officer said: “One guy told another guy, ‘I’d beat the hell out of you but then I can’t play pickleball.’”
Prisons are vast bureaucracies, BelAir learned, where he had to go through channels and committees and background checks to come and teach. There were also concerns that the paddle could be used as a weapon, “but as one person told me, a bar of soap in a sock is a weapon.” He noted that inmates have never gone after each other with the paddles so it’s a non-issue.
“It’s gotten easier to visit prisons because there’s been so much news coverage,” he said, with stories on his efforts appearing in USA Today, on NPR and other outlets.
The NPR story sparked pickleball players in Portland and Los Angeles to see if they might take BelAir’s effort into their local jails. “It’s about the game, it’s not about Roger,” BelAir said, adding that he thinks others will take up the cause as well because it benefits both prisoner and society.
“Many of these people will get out eventually,” he said. “With pickleball, they learn life skills, teamwork and discipline. It’s better for everyone if they leave as better human beings.”
— By Connie McDougall