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CHICAGO — Ryan Ratliff writes his wife and two daughters twice a week and lately has been trying to find a way to best explain the new game with a peculiar name he's been playing as a prisoner in Division 10 of Cook County Jail.
"It's like tennis, but with a pingpong way of playing," Ratliff says.
That's pickleball, a sport that combines elements of those games, as well as badminton, from which pickleball originated in the 1960s.
The sport is the fastest-growing in the USA, attracting more than 2.8 million players, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. It is played in schools, community rec centers and country clubs and is making its way behind bars in jails across the country.
At Cook County, one of the country's largest single-site jails, select inmates facing charges that range from robbery to murder may not be able to escape their circumstances in the maximum security division, but they do find that pickleball provides a break from reality.
"We're all fighting tough cases. Pickleball, for us to come down and play, to laugh a little, it brings our stress level down," says Ratliff, 28, of nearby Maywood, Illinois, whose face is checkered with tattoos -- including logos of the Chicago Bulls, White Sox and Bears. His Bears tattoo on the left side of his forehead covers a gang sign.
"I'm trying to change my life," says Ratliff, who awaits trial on charges of attempted murder and armed robbery.
His pickleball partner, Alberto Manzo, 19, says the inmates' pickleball tournament last month was eagerly anticipated.
"It's made everybody bring out their inner child," says Manzo, who faces charges of attempted murder and residential burglary. "It helps guys be more relaxed instead of trying to be all tough."
That was the message Roger BelAir brought when he pitched pickleball to Cook County Jail. A financial expert, author, public speaker and pickleball guru from Seattle, he donated equipment to the facility and helped get the sport up and running.
"When I first came here, to teach the rules, you could tell by their body language how reserved they were," says BelAir, who took to the sport seven years ago. "But after they got on the court for about 15 minutes, they were like a bunch of 5-year-olds on Christmas. I think escapism is beneficial for all of us. These guys are all awaiting their trial date, so it's a way to forget their problems for at least an hour. When you're on the court, you can't think of anything else other than hitting the ball over the net."
Sheriff Tom Dart, the chief executive of Cook County Jail, says that when he was pitched pickleball by BelAir in a letter, he thought it was a joke — until his 8-year-old daughter told him all about playing it.
"We really try to be cognizant of what we bring into the jail," Dart says, "and that we're not giving (inmates) something that will make things worse. Guys are so highly charged and competitive, we look for (activities) that relieve anxiety more than increase it. There's a calming element to pickleball you don't have in other sports, and the rules are easy to pick up."
Pickleball is played with a plastic ball with holes in it and a racket that is about 8 inches wide and 16 inches long. The court — often adapted from a tennis court — is 20 feet wide by 44 feet long.
Only the server can score, and the ball must bounce once on the serve before a player is allowed to hit in the air, and players must avoid hitting the ball from inside the non-volley "kitchen" zone (7 feet from the net).
Dart says that because Cook County Jail holds prisoners for a longer period than most county jails — almost 20 percent of the jail's more than 6,000 inmates stay for a year or more -- it's important to help with inmates' mental health while awaiting trial. Most U.S. jails, as opposed to prisons, have limited sports and recreation activities other than basketball and chess.
"Jails have never been thought of to need athletic programming because it's supposed to be in and out," Dart says. "But we're one of the worst in the country with that. I have three (inmates) who have been waiting 10 years for their trial. When you're in a confined area for so long, with (a pending trial) hanging over your head, there are going to be mental health issues. Nothing good happens when you sit and wait like that."
Jakhair Carrell, 18, charged with armed robbery, says the sport helped him cope with his ADHD.
"Pickleball fills a void for us — like we're not in jail, just for a little while," Carrell says. "Everyone's got a smile on their face and in a more joking (mood), even when someone's trying to cheat.
"With pickleball, you don't see as many fights as other sports because it's not as physical. But it's not a sissy sport. It's a little bit more about reflex, skill and speed."
"The sport slows these guys down more than basketball," says Jim Edmondson, Cook County Jail's Education and Alternative Programs coordinator, who oversees the inmates for sporting activities. "And there's a little bit more strategy, so it's more competitive for older guys going up against some of the better athletes."
BelAir, 71, says that's one of the benefits of the game: "It's very common to see a 60-year-old and a 20-year-old on the same court."
"Outside the jail, a lot of us are enemies on the streets," says Clarence Dunner, 38, charged with attempted murder. "Here, through this sport, you can see us playing and laughing together in unison — in harmony with one another."
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