California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Bored Prisoner = Dangerous Prisoner

Published: June 6, 2016

Laurel Richmond, a new face in recreation and leisure studies, knows a bored prisoner is a dangerous prisoner.

Richmond, who joined the university as a full-time lecturer in 2012 before becoming an assistant professor in 2015, authored an article in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Leisure Research titled “’It’s a Race War:’ Race and Leisure Experiences in California State Prison.”

“I was interested in the of-repeated statement by men who had spent time in California state prisons that they did nothing,” said Richmond. “I didn’t believe it was possible for anyone to do nothing. I wanted to learn from people who had spent time in prison about what recreational leisure meant to them. What that turned out to be was that it didn’t really matter what they wanted to participate in. The only thing that mattered was their race. Inmates could only associate with people of the same race. It didn’t matter whether or not anyone really wanted to play basketball. If you are black and the black guys are playing basketball, you play basketball. If Hispanic prisoners are doing push-ups in their cells and you are Hispanic, you do push-ups in your cell.”

Leisure choices are made with survival in mind and race is central to determining survival strategies, Richmond said in her article. The system of Racially Organized Prison Politics (ROPP) influenced each and every decision made behind bars. “A boring, monotonous, prison routine not only deprives prisoners of activities to distract from personal concerns but also reinforces negative feelings such as emptiness, despondency and despair,” she said.

“Within leisure scholarship, there is a lack of attention paid to institutionalized, structural and hegemonic power associated with both race and leisure,” Richmond explained. “The complex relationship between ROPP and leisure provides researchers unique insight into the relationship between race and the prison experience.”

Study participants responded to ads placed in local newspapers seeking men who had spent at least six months in a California State Prison. Richmond conducted semi­ structured University Institutional Review Board mandated phone interviews with 10 men of various racial identities (five white, two Black, two Hispanic and one Asian). Each participant was interviewed once for an hour.

“We asked participants to think back to their time spent in prison and to reflect on both their race and leisure experiences,” said Richmond. “Participants were asked specific questions about race in the prison environment. They were asked to describe a typical day in prison and to talk about the people with whom they associated. They were also asked if they chose to overtly `display’ their race while in prison and how their race influenced their daily decision making.”

Once each participant became familiar with the basic system-imposed rules of ROPP, they would begin to navigate the prison system and make decisions related to their leisure time. “Each prisoner had free time during each day that was his alone to fill,” she explained. “Other than work responsibilities or a drug or education program that required attendance, there were many hours of free time to manage. However, decisions made had to fall within the system of ROPP. As such, the participants believed that race did influence their free-time decisions.”

Bored Prisoner = Dangerous Prisoner
Laurel Richmond

Richmond earned her bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management from Northern Arizona University and her master’s in recreation and administration from CSULB in 2007. She received her doctorate in recreation and leisure studies from the University of Georgia in 2011.

Richmond’s research discovered that decisions about prison leisure can revolved around leisure as a service. She followed a participant who spent a great deal of his free time drawing on white handkerchiefs which he would sell to other prisoners. As long as money or goods exchanged hands, he was allowed by ROPP to speak with those of other races to determine what they wanted drawn and how much they would pay for his service.

“He used his leisure time to provide a service that was desirable to other prisoners,” she said. “Money made the difference in the interaction and it became acceptable for him to associate with different races to conduct his business.”

Richmond argues that abolishing ROPP polices is the first step toward creating an atmosphere of equality within California’s prisons.

“Leisure researchers investigating the prison experience have focused on the rehabilitation of individual prisoners, the normalizing effects of leisure on rehabilitative efforts and social inclusion back into local communities after prison,” she said. “The focus on rehabilitation, the post-prison experience and the individual all result in a lack of attention to the institutional structure that governs behavior. Continued research into prisons, in addition to groups that exist within and influence the structure, reveals the racialized society that exists and the role leisure plays in maintaining this system.”

Greater understanding of the role that leisure does (or does not) play prior to incarceration may reveal inadequacies in social support of all citizens, Richmond added. “Any future research must employ the idea of change.”