Washington State Penitentiary inmates compete for Unit Cup

Competitors during the Washington State Penitentiary Unit Cup on Saturday.

Competitors during the Washington State Penitentiary Unit Cup on Saturday. Photo by Alfred Diaz.

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WALLA WALLA — After 15 years of incarceration, Ryan Carter, who only has about three months left at the Washington State Penitentiary, is learning to adapt to life on the outside.

And over the last two weeks, he learned some valuable life lessons during a grueling inmate sports competition called the Unit Cup.

“Through this we were able to bring people together and do something positive as a whole,” said Carter, an East Complex minimum security inmate.

It is fitting that the Unit Cup — which champions teamwork, sportsmanship, endurance and other benefits of competition — was created by a penitentiary team consisting of recreation director Jennifer Adams and psychological assistant Katrina Suckow.

“You are helping them to improve their spirit and change their lifestyles and improve their social interaction,” Suckow said, as she carried her clipboard and readied the men for what would be a one-hour relay race on Saturday.

“Seeing them puts a smile on your face. Not only for me but for them too,” Suckow added.

For Adams, seeing the turnout was very pleasing, especially when she considered that the initial response was not as positive.

“The best part is just starting a whole new program and getting the inmates excited about it,” Adams said. “I have seen it go from guys not very interested to them being very interested.”

Saturday’s race was the culmination of 10 days of events for five teams, with competitions spread out over two weeks and ranging from basketball to volleyball, Scrabble to the traditional handball, which officials said is still one of the favorite sports at the penitentiary prison.

Pickleball was the favorite for Carter, the captain of the Titans, the team that won Saturday’s relay and the overall Unit Cup winner.

“I think the real lesson here is that the guys came into this event and they finished what they started; that’s the characteristic of a winner,” Carter said.

To an outsider, Saturday’s relay may have seemed surreal. A gathering of men of varying ages, many with hardened looks, most with tattoos and all smiling and enjoying a friendly competition.

The Unit Cup isn’t the first organized sports competition at the penitentiary. Earlier this year, staff organized a softball tournament and brought in teams from the outside to play against and interact with the men on the inside.

Some of those tournaments took place in West Complex, where maximum security inmates are kept.

Prison spokeswoman Shari Hall pointed out that the benefits of organized sports go beyond rehabilitation and help with daily prison life.

“Keep in mind, idle hands are never a good thing,” Hall said, “We work hard to create these programs at little or no cost, and they really benefit everybody.”

But there is also the chance to help the inmates change for the better through sports.

“A lot of times the guys in here have never had the chance to participate in structured activities, it has always been about themselves,” Hall said.

On Saturday, however, it was about going all out for the team.

“It is definitely positive, this program. It is not an individual thing. It is a group working together,” Carter said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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