Time Well Spent

By Charlie Hoffmann

“Nice move.” “Checkmate!” “Good game, man.” These are all common phrases one might hear at any chess match.  For a few moments, as I study the board, I forget that this is no ordinary match. On one side of the board stands an inmate serving multiple life sentences. Three feet across the board stands Kapil Chandran, a freshman member of the Princeton University Chess Club.

Loosely nicknamed the Inmates vs. Ivies program, this semi-annual event has become a highlight for students as well as inmates of the New Jersey State Prison, a maximum-security facility housing nearly 1,600 of the worst offenders in the state, located in Trenton. Chandran is one of five Princeton chess club members selected to participate in this event, now in its 17th year.

Despite the obvious, the match is really no different than one between two friends playing freely in a park or in someone’s living room. Like other recreational endeavors, chess is a great equalizer. It’s simply a game of strategy between two individuals enjoying themselves with an agreed-upon set of rules. On the surface, the opponents are polar opposites. However, a collective passion for chess quickly dissolves those differences.

I’m reminded of that simplicity and the beauty of sport while watching Anna Matlin, a Princeton senior who has made the trip eight times. Between moments of deep concentration in planning her next move, she jokes and laughs with her group of opponents. The fact that she is an Ivy League scholar and they are serving multiple life sentences is remarkably irrelevant.


Matlin, along with her four teammates, are dressed in plain clothes as they are matched against eight or nine inmates, playing multiple games simultaneously. Across the board, their opponents are donning their required khaki jumpsuits as we sit in the open gymnasium. A quick glance around the room reminds me to stay alert; the gym is currently housing five players, two prison officials, three corrections officers, and me. While outnumbered, we have a true sense of comfortability.

Matlin says she actually appreciates the aggression her opponents display in chess that keeps her coming back. “It’s honestly a real challenge,” she says. “It’s a very different style of chess because of the setting, but it’s still the same game. Everyone is so polite. They try to pull some tricks, and trash talking is fun here, too.” 

The program was started in 2001 by John Marshall of the local actuary, Windsor Strategy Partners, whose firm sponsors the event; Marshall continues to organize it. “It shows how chess crosses all the social strata,” he asserts. “Here you have maximum-security inmates and Ivy League students, and they both benefit from it.”   

Freeing The Mind
The visit provided a wonderful (yet equally bizarre) opportunity to learn about recreation in the correctional facility.

In speaking with inmates, it was apparent that each one truly values his recreation time, which is typically one hour per day in the gym and two hours per week in the yard. Gym time consists of weight training, basketball, handball, chess, cards, and socialization. In some ways, the gym is not much different than an average church or school gym facility. However, a few differences quickly become evident: it’s windowless, is flanked by armed officers, features a caged weight room, and contains about 50 of the most dangerous human beings on the planet. On a normal day, the gym hosts nearly all of the inmates. Similar to a camp counselor or recess monitor, the officers are all empowered to revoke daily recreation privileges as a deterrent to bad behavior. However, this is typically not a problem, and inmates are largely left unattended in the gym, without officers during rec time on normal days. If an incident of violence occurs, inmates wait until enough officers can properly suit up in riot gear before addressing the issue. Officers point out that the rec time is a time for the population to “police themselves.” No one wants to be the one whose incident prevents all of the others from missing rec time. Thus, the number of incidents during rec time is remarkably low.

Inmates overwhelmingly agree that, although their rec time is critical to their well-being and overall happiness, it ranks second to the most important hour of the week, which is spent in the prison’s law library. Since the majority of the men interviewed had exhausted all of their finances on attorneys and legal fees and were representing themselves on any further legal matters, the library time is paramount to study the law and prepare for appeals.

Nonetheless, all of the inmates spoke about how recreation time helps them remain positive, and they look forward to it every day. For some individuals, rec time is always spent alone and is limited to a very small space to prevent injury or harm to others.

“(Rec time) frees the mind,” inmate Michael Watson explains. “It gives you something to do instead of being locked in. Without rec, we would be depressed.”

While watching the chess matches, I saw clearly that the Princeton students were gaining as much from the experience as their opponents. “One thing interesting is their play style,” Chandran notes. “They have a distinctive, very aggressive style. They like to attack. It opens my eyes. It’s very cool and it’s different from what I normally see.” He adds, “Chess drives a lot of them. It serves as a common ground for them to come together.”

Recreation transcends all; my fear became non-existent as I was intoxicated in watching good chess. I was so proud to be a recreation professional during this visit. It served as a reminder that, as professionals, we provide a service and have a skillset to truly change lives and impact the future. This experience was leaps and bounds outside my comfort zone, but my quest to learn superseded my fear. I was so excited to perform a job that all else faded away. I would confidently presume that other rec professionals would have a similar mindset as we are an industry of smart,  creative, and adaptable people focused on serving others.       

Lessons Learned
In my journey, I made several notes on how my experience can be applied to the recreation profession as a whole:

There is room for improvement. According to PrisonPolicy.org, 2.3-million people (including juveniles) in this country are in some phase of the criminal correctional system. These individuals can be greatly assisted and rehabilitated through properly organized recreational initiatives. We should look introspectively as an industry of professionals to ensure we are providing the best services available to promote wellness and rehabilitation.

Recreation is important to inmates. Like all of us, inmates look forward to the brief amount of recreation time they are allotted in a week. To that end, rec time is a carrot that can be taken away by any member of the facility’s staff at any time. So, it clearly serves as the main motivator for good behavior.

There is something to be said for “controlling the variables.” All special events and rec programs are subject to variables that can derail their success, such as weather, politicians, unruly participants, safety hazards, facility limitations, etc.  Correctional-facility recreation has many more variables, and the dangers are tremendously intensified. I was most fascinated by the organization of recreation time, which is a Herculean effort for prison officials each day. Similar to that of many traditional park and recreation professionals, their job is to prepare for the unexpected and be ready to handle the worst-case scenario. The major difference is that the stakes in a prison are infinitely higher, and if things go wrong, the outcomes can be deadly.

Are you controlling your variables? My valuable takeaway from the visit was to ask myself if I am doing everything I can to keep order and to limit outside potential threats from the success of my events and programs. Granted, my risks are infinitely less than those of a prison staff; however, it’s still an important question to ponder.   

Safety should always come first. It’s paramount to ensure the safety of staff members and participants at any event. In a correctional facility, staff safety is difficult to ensure but absolutely needs to be a part of game-planning. One officer notes that rec time is the most valuable time for inmates, buts it’s the most dangerous for the staff. “It’s what keeps them sane, but it’s a major risk area for us.” Things can go haywire in a matter of moments. Similarly, are YOU doing everything you can to ensure your staff’s safety and well-being at your special events?

Charlie Hoffmann is a Recreation Director for the Borough of Red Bank in Coastal New Jersey. He received his Bachelor in Recreation and Leisure Services Management from Coastal Carolina University. Reach him at CHoffmann@redbanknj.org.