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Florida Returning Canteen Funds for Prisoner Programming

by Harold Hempstead

Pickleball is one of America’s fastestgrowing sports. Played with a paddle and a large plastic ball on an outdoor court, the game offers the speed of ping pong with less risk of an ankle injury than tennis, while still a more competitive alternative to badminton for aging Baby Boomers.

It’s also being played by prisoners held in the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC), at least a few hundred of them. For at least a few days. As of February 2023, the game had been introduced to eight prisons in the Sunshine State by Roger BelAir, 76, a self-style pickleball guru traveling the nation on his own dime to introduce the sport into jails and prisons.

BelAir said he got the idea while watching a TV program about Chicago’s jail, and he was struck by images of idle detainees. “I said to my wife, ‘They ought to be playing pickleball,’” he recalled. He sent a letter to the jail’s chief, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who noted BelAir “was offering something for free, which obviously got my attention in a hurry.”

Of course, Florida can afford to pay for programming such as education and sports. It even has a mechanism in place. But funds generated from commissary sales were long ago raided to balance the DOC budget, leaving the fund capped at a paltry $2.5 million.

Until now.

On June 15, 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed SB 7018 into law, raising the fund cap to $32 million. That money must be used “exclusively” for education, literacy and vocational training programs; chapels and faith-based programs; libraries, visiting pavilions and family services; prisoner substance abuse treatment and programs from transition and life skills training; audio-visual, recreational and wellness equipment; and “environmental health upgrades.” See: Senate Bill 7018, Fla. (2023).

That’s a lot to cover with just $400 per year, which is what the increased funding works out to for each of the state’s 80,000 prisoners. Meaning the need for volunteers like BelAir isn’t going away. During his eight-day Florida trip, he taught pickleball “to more than 300” prisoners at lockups from Tallahassee to Tampa, who reacted favorably.

Sara Dean, 43, found it a great way to lose weight and easy on the joints. Jenise Ortiz said, “[I]t takes you out of the gates.” Jhoan Cadavid, 34, said, “[I]t is something that’s very needed in here.” Pickleball,” added Lowell Correctional Institution Warden David Colon, “is for everybody.” Maybe with the new funds for prisoner programming, he can put some money behind that sentiment.

Additional source: Washington Post