Story and some photos by Lt. Michael Ramirez, AA/PIO
Other photos by Octavio Banaga, TV Specialist
Centinela State Prison

Identity Hoops International (IHI), a faith-based organization, matched their basketball team of professional and collegiate players against some of the toughest basketball players in the state – the inmates at Centinela State Prison (CEN). The IHI is a non-profit organization that uses basketball as a springboard to connect with people and affect a positive change in their lives.

The prison hosted two games, with a morning session on Facility A and afternoon session on Facility D. The Centinela match-ups were serious contests that included official inmate score keepers and referees. Centinela’s inmate teams comprised players from different races, a ground-breaking effort for groups of inmates who have traditionally self-segregated themselves by race.

“Today, sports and basketball tore down racial barriers and prison politics,” said Forest Hauck, CEN physical education teacher, coach and program facilitator.

The games were fast paced, high energy matches with incredible displays of athleticism and skill. Centinela’s teams put up tough resistance against the IHI and the scores were relatively close in both games.

However, the IHI managed to escape the prison with wins that occurred both on and off the court. At the end of each game the IHI staff and participating inmates shook hands, congratulated each other, and formed a circle for prayer and spiritual connections.

The men on both sides shared their stories of personal struggles and positive affirmations. Shane Kuyper, IHI executive director, explained to prison staff that the goal for bringing IHI to the prison was to convey to each inmate participant that they do matter and they are not forgotten.

After each game Kuyper stood on the gym floor and shared this core message aloud with the participants; “If we can learn identity in Christ, we can change our trajectory.”

Richie Schueler, the IHI coach, asked the men for their advice on what message to send to those who are struggling to stay out of prison. There were no shortages of inmate responses. One inmate sat back in his chair with his ball cap resting low on his brow, plainly stated; “Tell them one minor mishap, or misjudgment, or hour they are blasé, can have an effect on their entire life and family. You can lose it all in a flash.”

A second inmate chimed in; “Make sure they understand that this is not a good place.” A third inmate stated, “You come in here; you’re alone, your friends drop off, your family drops off, you find out who really cares about you when you’re behind these walls.”

One of the IHI players related to what the inmates had said and he too shared a personal story with the group. The inmates listened as the player told of his rise to the level of professional NBA player and his struggle with the law that led to an arrest which had threatened his freedom.

One of the men asked the IHI player what he was doing differently now and the player said: “I try to do everything the right way now. I’m not going to waste this second chance and I’m really hopeful for the future.”

The player’s story set the example for the men at Centinela. Kuyper said the program has proven to be mutually beneficial to inmates and the players.

“It has had a ripple effect,” he said. “We’ve seen the effect it’s had on our players.”

The basketball group’s positive message of faith, purpose, hope, and a person’s capacity to change was well received.

“It is my hope that positive public contact with groups like IHI will help prepare inmates for reintegration into their communities,” said Warden Raymond Madden.

Coach Hauck commented on the impact of the program; “The positive impact these activities have on the inmates is; it gives them a release from prison. The inmates tell me that they can’t wait to run and call their families to share their experiences. They are required to work with individuals from different backgrounds for a common goal.  The inmates are always on their best behavior, because they want to see more of these types of activities.”