You couldn’t help but notice all the deer.
As I prepared to enter Folsom State Prison with Sacramento Republic players and staff late Tuesday afternoon, there were about a dozen deer gathered around the entrance. We’d just driven through a countryside of rolling yellow hills to get to the prison; the American River flowed out of nearby Folsom Dam.
A group of nearby wild turkeys joined the deer as they wandered around the historic museum just outside the stone walls. A small group of tourists took advantage of the golden hour light.
We came the same way the deer and turkey and tourists did, but we were not there for photos. We were there to play soccer with incarcerated men. It’s probably worth noting I hadn’t played soccer in 20 years. But this wasn’t about the soccer, it was about the experience, for both the Sac Republic staff and the inmates.
While the tourists took snaps for the Gram, we traded in our cellphones and possessions for visitors’ badges and paperwork. And then we headed straight for the corner of the prison, with a green turret guard tower and matching metal gates.
Is it scary? No. But it’s disconcerting, probably by design. The prison opened in 1880, and though it’s been updated many times, it still looks like something out of a history book. The walls are made of uneven rocks. The guard towers are mostly unused now, but you can easily imagine someone in there with a rifle keeping an eye on things.
We went through the gates, past a pair of checkpoints and up a flight of stairs. We walked through a cell block, with one man on the top row staring at us, clearly wondering how we got here. We rounded a corner into the main mess hall and instantly recognized the scene before anybody told us.
“This is where Johnny Cash played in 1968,” a prison employee said.
It was easy to recognize the drab-grey interior, even as incarcerated men filled the space eating an early dinner. Yeah, we know this spot.
The prisoners were all around us at that point, the only differences were jumpsuits and little plastic badges; mine said “No. 32.” The prison is now minimum and medium security; we weren’t at great risk. It wasn’t always this way.
“And that room is where they used to hang people,” our guide said.
From 1891 to 1937, 93 men were executed here. It said “condemned” on the door in red lettering. We moved right past, outside and into the main yard.
A couple hundred inmates socialized and worked out in the yard. Two played handball against a prison wall. The field was fenced off from most of the general population. A mish-mash of artificial turf was pieced together in the outfield of a baseball diamond. The field had just been chalked with lines for our game, right up to the very edge of the turf. Inbounds, you were sliding on rubber grass. Out of bounds, rock-hard dirt and gravel awaited.
The group of about eight from Sacramento Republic met about a dozen men at midfield. Everyone introduced themselves.
“I’m a professional soccer player,” said one of the incarcerated men, drawing big laughs. You might have known that just from his clothes. The prisoners all wore long gray shorts that draped down to their calves.
We said our hellos. I let the guys know about my long layoff from soccer.
Sacramento Republic coach Mark Briggs helped divvy up the teams — somehow I wasn’t taken last — and then stepped onto the turf to play himself. Warmups mostly consisted of players nodding at the other guys on their team and people asking where you wanted to play. Defense. Somewhere out of the way. Cool. Stand over there.
The game started and it all melted away.
If you have a competitive bone in your body, you know the feeling. We didn’t notice the walls, the workout benches, the guard towers or the warden standing on the sidelines. We were 16 or so guys running around a field, chasing a ball.
Is it normal to just melt into a game or a performance, just like that? Put on the Man in Black’s most famous record sometime. You tell me.
A ball went out of bounds and up against the fence where the inmates on the sideline watched. You’d better hustle if you go over there. Not because it’s dangerous; those guys are going to rag on you if you’re jogging.
“Come on now, a little hustle!” one yelled.
We hustled plenty. The games sometimes have a more relaxed pace, but not Tuesday. We all charged up and down the field in the opening half, burning off a little pregame excitement. Briggs’ team took a 3-2 halftime lead after an unnamed rusty defender was part of a couple of breakdowns. There were no glasses to drink water from a cooler at halftime; a few guys cupped their hands to make do.
After a mostly scoreless fight in the second half, Briggs added the final dagger himself, after a nice cross from a prisoner left him with an easy tap into an empty net.
The incarcerated men wanted to linger after the final whistle. Every one of them must have said “thanks for coming” a dozen times. We fist-bumped and shook hands. We talked about the game. Is it normal to just melt into the game like that?
“Man, that could have been any park in America,” said Kelvim, my team’s goalkeeper.
It sure felt like it. We’ll see you next month, the Sacramento Republic staff said. They come every month to play.
It was time to go. We cut through another cell block; guys were showering in a spot guarded only by a low wall, with no ceiling above them. The cells looked a lot like Alcatraz, only populated with inmates. After a stop at a checkpoint, we stepped outside the prison walls. The deer and the turkeys and the golden hour disappeared back onto the other side of those yellow hills.
“What a beautiful night it turned into,” Briggs remarked. It was dusk and he was talking about the weather. It also applied to everything.