Behind the Wall
By Jacob Baynham
Brandt Bernat took notice when he got an email in March 2010. It was forwarded from Xavier’s club volleyball president Mike Czopek. The return address: prison.
Neither student had received a letter from a prison before. The email was a request from the recreation coordinator at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky. “We have just recently started a varsity volleyball team here,” it read. “I was hoping your team would be interested in taking a road trip to Louisville one day to play a match.”
“We thought it might have been a joke or a scam,” Bernat says. But the email listed three Bible colleges that already visited Luther Luckett, so Bernat and Czopek started calling around. How was it? Did they feel safe? Would they do it again?
“Everybody we talked to loved it,” Bernat says. “They were planning on going every year. It was a great time and a learning experience.”
Bernat and Czopek took the idea to the rest of the team, who saw the community service value of playing at the prison. “Club sports are supposed to dedicate a certain number of hours to service,” Bernat says. “Our team enjoys going out and doing stuff. It’s not something we feel obliged to go do.”
So the team scheduled a scrimmage. In November 2010, still unsure of quite what to expect, they piled into their cars and drove south on I-71 to La Grange, Ky. “When you first pull into the parking lot and see three layers of barbed wire fence and watchtowers all across, you get this sense that this is something you never imagined you’d be doing yourself,” Bernat says. “You’re walking into a prison to go play a team of inmates. You’re a little scared at first.”
Getting into Luther Luckett was a bit like going through security at an airport. “When you walk into the prison, you have to check in, go through a metal detector and run your bag through a baggage check,” Bernat says. Cell phones aren’t allowed, nor are cameras or any sharp objects. Team members could only bring a couple snacks, a water bottle and no more than $20 in cash. They exchanged their driver’s licenses for numbered wristbands at the front desk, and then walked through three barricades to the gymnasium. It was empty.
Half an hour later, 50 inmates filed in, filling 12 rows of courtside bleachers. The prison team followed. The Xavier squad was on edge. How were the inmates in the stands going to react? The prison team had Xavier right where they wanted them.
“For a team that’s coming in for the first time, we know that our best chance of winning a set is the first set,” says Damon Romel, the Luther Luckett recreation coordinator who formed the prison team and invited Xavier to play. “The guys come in and they’re nervous. They’re not sure about their surroundings.”
The first set was close—Xavier won by seven points—but with growing confidence, the Musketeers swept the remaining four sets. The Xavier team quickly realized the inmates in the stands were rooting for them. “They were cheering for us,” Bernat says. “That helped us calm down.”
Still, the level of competition surprised Bernat. “They were better than we originally thought,” he says. “Some of these guys had never played volleyball before coming here. They really work hard.”
Then came Bernat’s favorite part of the experience—a mixed-team scrimmage. “That was a lot of fun,” he says. “It gave us the opportunity to talk with these guys. Going back and forth at the net, we were all laughing and having a great time.”
After the matches, several inmates spoke about how a series of wrong decisions landed them in Luther Luckett, but now they were working to create a better life when they get out. The Xavier team, who had been scared coming into a prison, left with a better understanding of the people who inhabit them.
“We saw that these guys are really trying to put in the work to better themselves so that when they get out they can better their families and society,” Bernat says. Now the president of Xavier’s club volleyball team, Bernat hopes to make the Luther Luckett scrimmage an annual event. The team made a second visit last fall.
Romel enjoys watching the transformation of outside teams who play the inmates. “It’s good for them to come in and actually get a feel for what it’s like to be behind the fence,” he says. “At that point they start to realize, the guys in here are for the most part pretty much just like them.”
So far the prisoners of Luther Luckett have only won one game against an outside opponent—Wittenberg University. That doesn’t bother Romel. “I’m not as concerned about us winning,” he says. He’s more interested in the way volleyball lets his players momentarily escape their day-to-day confinement.
“When people are willing to take the time to go in and play volleyball with them, it makes them feel better,” Romel says. “For a little while they have a little sense of freedom. All they have to worry about is volleyball.”