Spinning the Yard: Social Implications of Inmates in the Hamster’s Cage
Lamarr Little was awarded Third Place in Essay in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Little is currently incarcerated at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York.
Every year, hundreds of inmates from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.
What is the significance of spinning the yard to inmates in the New York prison system? And where does the term come from? To answer the question of why prison inmates “spin the yard” requires more than just a simple answer, for there are existing semiotic implications that shape and mold the identities of the inmates who spin the prison yards. Spinning the yard is walking around the yard either clockwise or counterclockwise. Most inmates spin the yard in order to find a sense of self and belonging. My general argument is that spinning the yard is habitual within the prison environment. Thus, I conducted my ethnographic research among 11 participants within a New York State Correctional Institution. I participated in the research which included approximately six weeks of interviews, observations, and the act of spinning the yard. The primary question I posed was: Do you spin the yard? The question is a key term for walking around the yard, so each inmate I interviewed knew immediately what I was referring to. I relate spinning the yard to what Émile Durkheim describes as a social fact1, as there are no rules for or against the yard; yet it is reified and practiced widely by inmates in prisons within New York State. The act of spinning the yard is part of the prison culture and it has both positive and negative implications. This is important because spinning the yard is dangerous due to the hierarchal structures that exist within the prison yards. If an inmate lacks status in the yard, he could be ostracized or compelled to affiliate himself with one of the prison social groups. I wish to explore the self-prescribing act of spinning the yard through firsthand accounts by inmates who preside over prison culture. One of the participants I interviewed was a 44-year-old African-American male named “Big Boy” who has been incarcerated for 23 years. One of the general questions I asked him was: Where do you think the term comes from? He responded rather matter-of-factly, though his eyes drifted out the window toward the yard as he exclaimed,
“The term is slang terminology, but it’s symbolic to that of a hamster in a treadmill. You could walk to left or right and you’ll still end up back at the point where you started at. In the yard you could walk left or right and still won’t go anywhere. The hamster runs on the treadmill going nowhere. That term developed in the ʼ90s the first time I got in the system. The old timers called it a lap.”
Later, I will dive into what the old timers describe as “a lap,” for it has semiotic implications on the act of spinning.
Hamsters in a Cage
The yards are always being observed, thus the 260 ft. by 260 ft. mass of land that makes up the yard is quite similar to a zoo or a cage for animals. For example, a pet hamster sits in its cage and the owners observe the hamster then gives it something to do within the square cage. Indeed, the circle that the inmates spin within the yard is imaginary, yet the square yard is complete within itself, for a square has four sides and each corner has 90°, thus 90°x4=360°. Hence, the circle within the yard is created like a spinning wheel/treadmill that is placed within a hamster’s cage, for the hamster is confined to a square cage with a circle to travel or circulate, thus providing a means for exercise or occupying time within that space.
Spinning the yard is conducive to maintaining an inmate’s mental stability. Though there are inmates with mental health issues who spin the yard, the act may be habitual and it becomes universal in this environment. I call the mental health inmates “drifters,” for they resemble the zombies on the AMC series The Walking Dead. The mental health inmates walk aimlessly, oftentimes for the whole recreational period—even in inclement weather. Now let’s briefly dive into Geertz’s “thick description,”2 for most of the mental health inmates are either heavily medicated, have serious psychological problems, or are prone to be violent. Yet I found a mental health inmate competent enough to be interviewed by the name of “Twobar,” a 54-year-old African-American male who had been incarcerated since the seventies. During our brief interview I discovered that Twobar and other mental health inmates developed this learned behavior from watching other inmates. Other than (according to Twobar) coming to the yard to “bum cigarettes,” their ontology is habitual.
While spinning the yard, inmates are afforded the opportunity to vent their frustrations. For example, an inmate would spin the yard with a companion to express the good and bad in his life. The companions are extending an ear and oftentimes moral support, which provides comfort and a safe atmosphere for an inmate to express himself. Although vulnerability is apparent, it is never exploited, for camaraderie and protection are available to the inmate. One of the participants I interviewed named “Quadre” elaborated on the significance of spinning the yard after having a bad family visit earlier that day. As Quadre declared, “I would spin the yard usually when I had something going on eternally. For instance, I had a fucked up visit today and instead of sitting in my cell dwelling on it, I came to the yard to spin. I had to talk to one of my comrades, and I know that he don’t want to hear me vent all the time but he listens to me and my problems.” Clearly this was helpful for Quadre’s mental stability, and the Labyrinth he is confined to is where he leaves his problems. When an inmate returns to his cell after spinning the yard, he or she feels drained, hungry, and tired. Yard recreation begins at 6:30pm and ends at 9:45pm, so many inmates spin for a substantial amount of time within said time periods.
The inmates occupy the yard thinking and processing, unlike the hamster, where the treadmill occupies it. Prison is a very stressful environment and the yard is where most of the frustrations of inmates are released. Typically, one can release stress through using the telephone, exercising, playing sports, socializing, violence, and systematically spinning the yard. One quiet Saturday afternoon the prison yard was filled with approximately one hundred inmates, scattered throughout like pedestrians at a shopping mall or a social gathering. Many engulfed in conversation, smoking cigarettes and (other) while some are sitting at benches playing chess, cards, and dominoes. Yet others are simply sitting at their territorial bench areas. Meanwhile the telephones are crowded as usual, for the telephones are commodities in the yards. As several inmates converse with enthusiasm on the nine telephones stationed against the wall in the yard, others stand nearby waiting for their turn. Each telephone call is 30 minutes so some inmates would spin the yards for a half an hour, then seize their turn on the telephone. This is common practice but not all inmates spin the yard to kill time.
Spinning the yard feels like walking through an inner city neighborhood. As I turned each corner of the yard it reminded me of corners on city blocks. Although there were no bodegas or Chinese restaurants, the crowds of inmates that were posted on the corners made me feel as if I was in the ghetto. I felt confined yet free while walking in circles in the midst of various ethnicities. There were a few people that I recognized who greeted me with a ‘What’s up?’ or a handshake, but the majority of the people were occupied through conversation. After 30 minutes of spinning I realized that I had been power walking, for I felt tired and naturally slowed my pace. I had been thinking about so many things at once, where unconsciously I sped up my pace. Naturally and instinctively I was hyper-aware of my surroundings because I could feel tension in certain areas of the yard and I recognized this while I was spinning. I’ve been incarcerated for 16 years so tension is easily identifiable. Ironically, there was a sense of déjà vu each time I passed my initial starting point of spinning, for I had been going nowhere fast. Though I was conducting my research as a participant individually spinning the yard, there were several instances where I had to avoid social interactions. I felt compelled and obligated to stop and converse with inmates I knew or allow them to accompany me.
Giovanni, a 30-year-old white American participant I interviewed who has been incarcerated for 10 years, stated that he spins the yard as a “defense mechanism.” He would spin the yard to avoid “social activities,” because he didn’t know who was who. Yet Giovanni acknowledged the benefits when he stated, “You never stop spinning the yard because it’s a therapeutic program that you develop for yourself, because no one tells you to spin the yard.” Therapy is achieved through spinning the yard for many inmates and particularly the ones I interviewed who developed this spinning habit in order to combat the discourse in their lives. Giovanni exclaimed, “I was thinking and moving, just burning deep. I was leaving whatever weighed on me in that circle.” Although spinning the yard is a physical act, the participant I interviewed name Quadre affirmed it’s habitual and also for mental clarity. Thus Quadre declared, “When I came to the state penitentiary I fell right in line because that’s what they were doing here and they called it spinning the yard. Then you used it how you used it, where it was clearing your mind or continual exercise.” The inmates at this (Green Haven3) reify spinning the yard by their active and consistent participation in the act itself.
The multiplicity of the act possesses individual meaning to the inmates who spin the yard. This ultimately dives into extraordinary “thick description,” what Gilbert Ryle and Clifford Geertz describe in Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures as “sorting out the structures of signification—what Ryle called established codes.” The subjective view of why an inmate spins the yard is the result of his condition while the objective view is related to conditioning. In other words, the prisoner has nowhere to go so he spins the yard as a form of travel. This allows the prisoner to feel as if he’s walking away or from his reality of confinement. He views himself as being trapped within his self and condition. Some inmates accept the reality of their situation and, based upon their condition, the inmates spin the yard to socialize and kill time. Thus the layer, or conditioning, within the prison environment bears great significance due to the effect it has on inmates. The effects vary, for each individual processes his predicament differently. Some remain in their cells although they have the option for recreation while the vast majority attends the yard systematically. The yard is for recreational purposes while spinning the yard is a prison cultural norm. But the majority of the participants I interviewed gave various accounts of how spinning the yard came about.
Taking a Lap4
There were several accounts regarding the term spinning the yard, but what I found interesting was the preexisting term, “taking a lap.” Although it is similar to spinning the yard, the specification of “taking a lap” insinuated that the rotations were less frequent than what it eventually became. Thus Quadre mentioned the term when he exclaimed, “Even when I was in D.F.Y.5 (Division For Youth), we spinning the yard but we called it taking a lap.” Yet when I asked Quadre where the term comes from, his answer eluded prison, thus he declared, “In the streets we used to say ‘come with me, let’s spin real quick.’ But we was6 in a car and we could say, ‘Take me for a spin.’” Thus driving around the block in a car is semiotic to spinning the yard and vice versa.
Other participants I interviewed corroborated Quadre’s account. For instance Gary, a 35-year-old African-American male who has been incarcerated for 13 years, gave an account from different prison environments. Gary states, “The term is a New Age twist on taking a lap or walking the yard. In Five Points7 the term is called taking a lap. Even when I was in Sing-Sing8 we never used that term, but I believe the term derives from the actual act of walking around the yard.” Indeed, spinning the yard and taking a lap are parallel, though they are different through definition and interpretation. Another participant that I interviewed was a charismatic and energetic African-American male named Skippy, who had been incarcerated for 12 years. He gave a more in-depth answer regarding the term’s origin, for Skippy exclaimed, “Old timers9 back in in the days, mid ʼ60s–ʼ70s, took a spin with a young brother and schooled him about prison culture. The O.G.s10 probably said, ‘Let’s walk around the yard and give people knowledge of the prison.’ But our generation put a spin on it and said, ‘Let’s spin the yard.’” This account has positive implications, for the initial purpose dealt with enlightenment, yet there are some negative aspects of spinning the yard which I discovered during my ethnographic research.
Kings of the Jungle
There are existing forms of reciprocity11 during the act of spinning the yard, through conversation, ideas, and the overall socialization. Social organization takes place in the yard in the form of spinning or taking a lap through the pair or group spinning. The exchange of conversation is the potlatch12 that leads to ideas and potential plans of action. Whether positive or negative, this social energy13 is parallel to what Durkheim and Mauss describe in Mauss’s The Gift, as a “perpetual state of effervescence.” Some inmates spin the yard consistently, so the act of spinning becomes a sacred ritual, while other inmates are profoundly bound through specific affiliations to spin the yard with their own social groups. The yard is a social environment that connects or disconnects inmates through affiliation; whether religious, ethnic, political, status, or geographical location, either way the inmates seek those they can identify with in order to socialize and ultimately spin the yard with. Quite similar to the social life Mauss points out about a Northwest Native American group. Thus Mauss exclaimed, “This life consists of continual movement. There are constant visits of whole tribes to others, of clans to clans and families to families.” There are different social groups in prison, but they are all inmates and wear the same green uniform, thus through these commonalities the groups are unified. These social groups have hierarchy and within that hierarchy there is status, and oftentimes one’s status is used negatively. I asked Big Boy this question during our interview: Do you think there’s a difference between black, white, and Hispanic inmates spinning the yard? And his response spoke to perception rather than clear distinction, for Big Boy exclaimed, “Yeah . . . different ethnic circles take this prison life more serious than others, they groom their young and their newcomers to prison life for their ideology of prison life.” Information is power in the yard, so the potlatch could be information that lowers or elevates one’s status. So the exchange of information can start or prevent wars amongst the various groups. Also, it can act in a form of reciprocity where alliances are formed through this social phenomena. Furthermore, it can be used as a means to control these groups, for the yard is parallel to a jungle and each of these groups wishes to be the conquering lion. Thus, the constant spinning enables information to spread because the individual, pair, or groups spinning the yard make contact with all social groups and use information to their advantage.
The Pace of Individuals, Pairs, and Groups
Many prisoners identify themselves and others as animals, from Lions, Big Dogs, Wolves, and Silverback Gorillas to Cats, Snakes, Rats, and Birds with positive and negative social implications. The individual I observed had an intense walk that carried a hint of aggression. The overexaggerated strut of the individual looked identical to a gorilla walking in the jungle, yet his body language indicated heavy thought. The individual appears to be processing internal issues. Thus, by the pace in which he walks differentiates the positive or negative burden he carries. The fast pace motion is normally accompanied by an antisocial attitude or in some cases a cry for attention. Either way the individual is in desperate need of release through counseling from a fellow inmate or, in contrast, a violent confrontation. Carlos, a 34-year-old Hispanic-American who has been incarcerated for 14 years on a 40-year bid, participated in my research. During our interview he placed emphasis on the dangers of spinning the yard. Thus Carlos exclaimed, “Yes spinning the yard is dangerous, because you can walk right into a situation . . . Like being at the wrong place at the wrong time and something could happen to you. Some individuals might think you’re scheming [he frowns his face]. Also, if you’re spinning the yard by yourself, you could become a victim; people could look at you as weak because you’re by yourself.” I found this interesting because loners are perceived as weak, and it is likely the reason unaffiliated inmates are preyed upon in this environment. Spinning the yard as a pair included intimate conversation, for the men walked at a steady pace listening to one another intensely. Meanwhile both are blocking out the noise in the yard. There’s a sense of bonding that occurs during this process. In other words, sentiments of brotherhood are established, for the pair naturally or habitually spins the yard together each time they come to the yard. Identifying with individuals has race implications, for common language unifies groups of people. Thus the pair communicates in a language they both understand, whether it is English, Spanish, Creole, Korean, Chinese, West Indian Patois, Albanian, Russian, and in some cases Ebonics/street slang. The pairs I observed spinning often emphasized certain words and displayed a degree of excitement within their observation of the atmosphere while rotating. This awareness often dictates whether or not inmates will spin the yard, post up against a wall, or sit at a bench. The pair sped up their pace during each lap, yet the frequent laps eventually become tiresome at one point or another. Spinning the yard as a group is quite unusual because it looks as if they’re going somewhere in particular. The group I observed was six men who had a hint of aggression while they walked in a pack similar to wolves. Although they were conversing in a friendly manner and would occasionally laugh or make an unsuitable exclamation, the men had a confidence which was displayed through their uniformity. Furthermore, there is a sense of hierarchy within the group, yet the leader or the one with status isn’t necessarily leading the pack. While these six inmates were spinning the yard, other inmates cleared the walkway without being advised to do so, which was either out of respect or fear. Either way the presence of the group was strong. So whether you’re spinning the yard or taking a lap individually, as a pair or a group, the occupants of the yard are watching you, observing your body language and determining your affiliation—which ultimately determines how you will be treated while you spin. Inmates will move out of your way while you’re spinning and some will acknowledge you, while others will ignore you and expect you to move out of their way.
I asked Big Boy: What is the most important thing one should know about spinning the yard? He paused for a few seconds then thoughtfully responded, “I’ll have to say, knowing who you’re spinning with. If you’re walking the yard with someone who is a symbol of strength, that could discourage someone who had intentions on doing something to you. On the opposite end, if you’re lapping14 the yard with someone who got bandits15, that would motivate one to move on you first to get you out the way.” Though the yard can be dangerous and a place to exercise, use the phone, and play sports, it is also a social battleground. For there are inmates who use the yard for positive purposes, like Skippy for instance. I asked him why does he spin the yard? He responded very adamantly, “I try to find young brothers who are at risk of getting caught in negativity.” So a form of balance exists within that circle or square the inmates travel, yet for most inmates spinning the yard is therapy. Just like the hamster moving a treadmill going nowhere fast.
1. Social Facts are undocumented behaviors that govern a group of people and upheld by that group (Émile Durkheim 76).
2. Thick Description is a key term coined by Gilbert Ryle, but it is referenced by Clifford Geertz, diving into deeper meaning and interpretation.
3. Green Haven is a maximum A. prison located in Stormville, New York.
4. Talking a lap is walking around the yard either clockwise or counterclockwise.
5. Division For Youth is a juvenile jail, i.e. Spofford.
6. Though this fragmented sentence is grammatically incorrect, this is exactly how Quadre spoke during our interview.
7. Five Points is a maximum A. prison located in Romulus, New York.
8. Sing-Sing is a maximum B. prison located in Ossining, New York.
9. Old timer is an old person who has been in prison since the ʼ60s–ʼ80s.
10. O.G. is a reference to original gangster.
11. Reciprocity is a form of exchange/gift giving that Marcel Mauss believes is used to forge and maintain alliances.
12. Potlatch is a gift exchange, the honor of both the giver and receiver. Through potlatch you’re creating an expectation in return. This process creates social solidarity for it engages people in moral regulation. Marcel Mauss uses this term in The Gift.
13. Social energy is the special energy created by a group of people when they come together in unison by an identical force that propels them in the same direction. Marcel Mauss references social energy in The Gift.
14. Lapping is slang for taking a lap.
15. Bandits are enemies, arch nemesis’ who you have unresolved quarrels with.