A WRONG turn we took on the Mass. Turnpike made us late for the basketball game with the Billerica Jail and House of Correction.
Billerica houses convicts between 19 and 50 years old. The average age of the inmates is 21 and the maximum sentence at the House of Correction, where we were to play, is two years.
The guard at the front security desk saw our uniforms and told us to hurry or we'd miss the game. We already had our uniforms on. We wore them so we wouldn't have to change clothes at the jail. We didn't want to have to leave our wallets, watches or other valuables lying around during the game. The guard threw a switch that opened the thick, bright orange metal sliding doors. Another guard opened the locker room, where we used the bathroom and left our coats.
He showed us the stairs to the gym. We went up alone, the four of us, and walked onto what was being used as a basketball court, where our team, the Harvard Classics, was already playing against the Billerica squad, which was outfitted in jeans cut off or cuffed to various lengths. They all didn't have a shirt alike so they were playing "skins." Nobody on their team wore a shirt.
The Classics is sort of a barnstorming team of former high school stars that was formed by John Harvey, a Harvard varsity basketball assistant. He wanted to give fellows who didn't compete in intercollegiate basketball a chance to have fun playing against other organized teams.
The gym was like what was called an "all-purpose room" at my grade school, where the tables you ate lunch on were folded into the wall to clear the floor for basketball games, plays and PTA meetings. A ping pong table and a wooden desk sat on the raised stage at one end of the room. A speed bag, punching bag and pool table filled up the other end. The 50 feet between was marked off for playing basketball.
Our team is very informal so while waiting to get in the game I walked around and talked to some of the people who sat in wooden chairs on the stage and watched the game. One guy watching the game was a high school sophomore who was finishing his first day at Billerica. A judge sentenced him to 30 days for hitting his teacher.
I WAS JUST protecting myself," he said. "The bastard swung at me so I reacted. I hit him in the jaw and knocked him out cold. He must have been out for at least five minutes. My mother was crying in court and pleading with the judge but I'm not sweating it. I'll be out in a few weeks."
"This ain't no jail," said Mike O'Keefe, a guard who was sitting at the desk on the stage. O'Keefe, 25, moonlights at Billerica to support his young family. "They (the prisoners) got TV in their rooms, (he didn't say cells), a snack bar, almost everything there is on the outside. They got all this equipment to work out on but they're just a bunch of dead-beats. All they want to do is sit downstairs and watch television and talk to their folks and girlfriends who come to see them pretty often, two or three times a week. If I was in jail I'd be in great shape," said the pudgy O'Keefe. "These guys got the speed bag, punching bag, weights and the basketball court. With all that free time I'd do some running and work out on the bags and the weights."
O'Keefe dropped out of night school at Boston College, where he was studying criminology. His wife had their third child six months ago. The other children are two and a half and one and a half. "I couldn't afford school anymore with three kids in three years. I got my own home and a new car to pay for, too," he lamented. "I live over in Lowell and there's no work there at all. I'm lucky to be able to work here. They're friendly fellows. They don't cause no trouble because they know they'll be getting out so soon."
Neither O'Keefe or any of the other guards wear guns. Only their light blue shirts and navy blue pants distinguish them from the inmates. A few wear silver badges pinned on their shirt pockets. One or two thick silver rings full of jangling keys dangle from a couple of the guards' belts. The guards, many of them Boston area college students, joked and laughed with the inmates.
One fellow played a game of ping pong with me. He kept score and he didn't cheat or try to bully me over close calls. After I beat him, by two points, he shook my hand and said "good game" and went to shoot pool.
The inmates are used to being around outsiders, O'Keefe told me. The basketball team plays a full schedule, people in prison visitation programs go to Billerica on Friday nights and the street hockey team competes with local teams.
"Most of the kids are in here for minor crimes like drugs, stealing cars, assault. The only ones who may be a problem are those who are in the jail waiting for trial," O'Keefe said. "Some of them have been accused of murder. You have to wait until after the trial to find out if they're murderers or not."
Mike Fitzgerald, the team's player coach, is an inmate but he works outside the prison and lives in a dormitory. He's allowed to live "off-campus" under the jail's Work-Release program. Fitz, as he likes to be called, looks like one of the entries in a Mr. America contest. He's about 6 ft. 3 in. and must weigh 215 pounds. He was the best player on either team.