Prisoners Play Pickleball

By Matthew Schwartz

May 28, 2024


(Roger BelAir)


At this place, at this time, you’re as likely to hear, “Zero, zero, two” as you are “25 to life.”  

The place is Rikers Island, the notoriously violent prison in New York City. The inmates have gathered to learn how to play pickleball. In this unusual setting is an unusual instructor.

Roger BelAir conducts pickleball clinics inside correctional institutions around the country. He’s taught pickleball to 4000 inmates inside 20 prisons and jails from California’s San Quentin to Florida’s Sumter County Jail. BelAir pays his expenses, air fare, hotel, everything. He  donates paddles and nets to the facilities. After he leaves, the equipment, and a new activity for inmates, remain. He’s received glowing thank you letters from corrections officials saying that because the inmates enjoyed playing so much, the facility will be making pickleball a regular part of the inmates schedule.

BelAir has done well for himself financially. He’s a 77-year-old former banker and investment advisor. He and his wife split their time between homes in Edmonds, WA, near the birthplace of pickleball (he knew one of the game’s founders, Barney McCallum), and near Palm Springs, CA. “We leave Washington before rainy season,” he says over the phone with a laugh.

He’s been profiled in a Money magazine cover story, written successful books on finance and is often a keynote speaker at business conventions.

“In the 70’s and ‘80’s I was a Vice President at Seattle First National Bank, the largest bank in the Pacific Northwest. However, I was also an entrepreneur. With another banker I started a small investment company. We were at the right place at the right time, and very fortunate,” BelAir says. 

But teaching pickleball to prisoners, he says, is the most satisfying thing he’s ever done.

(Roger BelAir teaches prisoners how to play pickleball)


BelAir started playing pickleball in 2010 and says he’s a 4.0. He loves everything about the sport. His idea for conducting clinics behind bars came to him in 2017. He and his wife were watching a 60 Minutes report on crime that showed prison inmates standing in a courtyard, doing nothing. He then envisioned pickleball as a means of teaching life skills to inmates. Since 95 percent of all federal and state prisoners are eventually released, BelAir thought perhaps pickleball could help make them better people. Additionally, he could combine two of his passions: pickleball and public speaking.

He says correctional facility officials were initially resistant to his idea-until they learned it wouldn’t cost them a cent.

BelAir’s clinics have been extraordinarily successful. At the Cook County Jail in Chicago, he introduced pickleball to men charged with murder. He says gang members who wouldn’t talk to each other were playing pickleball together, and soon were getting along.

“You have prisoners who are enemies, and all of a sudden, they are playing as a team and laughing together,” BelAir said in an article for the Carvana PPA Pickleball Tour website.  “You have groups of people who won’t talk to each other, but then voluntarily get involved playing pickleball on the same court. Guys in different gangs giving each other a high five. There’s something positive that comes out of each hitting session. I had no idea that something like pickleball could be so powerful until I saw the dividends for myself.”

BelAir says some inmates aren’t excited before trying pickleball. “Some can be hesitant, until they get onto the court. Within 15 minutes of playing, they act like third graders out on the playground. They’re all bangers, as you would expect from aggressive 25-year-old guys.”
BelAir is aware of the critics, those who don’t think inmates deserve to enjoy themselves this way. “There are people who come from the perspective that there shouldn’t be fun or games in prison and say that they are there to be punished,” BelAir said. “I understand both sides, but even if you don’t want them to have joy, the guards use force 15-20 times per day at Rikers. If you could cut that in half, isn’t that better for everyone?” 

BelAir is a showman and incorporates humor in his instruction. “Sometimes there is as much laughter as a comedy club,” he said. “After every game we have a group hug. After the shock value, I demonstrate the tapping of paddles and say in pickleball it’s called a ‘GH.’ And inmates comply by saying ‘GH’ after each game.”

 BelAir wants the clinics in correctional facilities to continue after he can no longer lead them.  

“Over the past couple years players have reached out to me and basically said, ‘I want to do what you do, but I have no idea where to start. Will you help me? Will you be my mentor?’Of course, I say yes. The program has continued to grow and now I mentor several dozen. Much of my time is spent in this area,” he says.

BelAir says a Netflix documentary about his work is in the works. Roger BelAir is another example of pickleball’s tendency to bring out the best in people. Even people who have done some of the worst things imaginable.

You can reach Roger BelAir at



(Sign posted at Asheville’s shared pickleball/tennis courts) 


Thoughts of the week, not all pickleball

The researchers who rank Asheville, NC, among the best cities in which to retire must not be pickleball players. Asheville’s population of about 95,000 includes thousands of avid pickleball players, yet the city has no dedicated public pickleball courts. Not one.

The town where I previously lived, Oro Valley, AZ, near Tucson, has roughly half the population of Asheville and 26 dedicated public courts (yes, the weather in Arizona is quite different, but there are numerous cold weather cities with many dedicated public pickleball courts per capita, including Lincoln, NE, and Madison, WI.)

Asheville’s Parks & Recreation Department had supplied eight portable nets at its 23 outdoor courts, which are also lined for tennis. Pickleball players bring their own nets for the other courts. This past Friday the city removed all of its nets. There was apparently no advance notification, no signs at the courts informing players or any announcement on the city website.

Yira Pia Sanchez is furious. She runs the Asheville Pickleball Association and is a certified instructor. Yira says she had been told on Thursday the nets would be removed, but not specifically when. It could have been weeks away. She wanted time for the city’s pickleball community of some 3000 players to be notified. Yira claims the city told her “They would send us a copy of the official statement [well in advance], which we never got.” Yira says she was notified of the net removal on Friday only after they were removed. She also thinks new nets should’ve been installed at the time the old ones were removed.

I emailed Asheville’s Parks & Recreation Department, asking why there was apparently no advance warning. A spokesperson’s reply referenced the signs posted at courts (see photo) and a statement on the city’s website. But both were posted on the same day the nets were removed.  The way the city handled this makes its actions appear surreptitious.

The pickleball players who neglected to roll the heavy, city provided nets off the courts, which led to surface damage, were wrong. But I think the city should’ve provided replacement nets at the same time it removed the old ones.  

A parks & recreation department spokesperson told me on Sunday there’s no exact date for new nets to be placed at the courts. He added that the department “is diligently working on alternatives to support the sport and its players.”

I will be following-up on this to see exactly how diligent and supportive the city will be. After all, if you don’t provide one dedicated pickleball court, shouldn’t you at least provide nets.


 Morgan Spurlock, the filmmaker best known for his fast food documentary, Super Size Me, died last Thursday. He was 53. His family said the cause was complications of cancer. Spurlock rose to fame in 2004 after eating only McDonalds for 30 straight days. His cholesterol skyrocketed and he gained 25 pounds. Some of his obituaries mentioned a 2018 CDC report finding that almost 37 percent of adults in the US ate fast food on any given day between 2013-2016.

No wonder that another CDC study found 74 percent of adults in the US are overweight, including nearly 43 percent who are considered obese.


I see the same two questions asked every day by pickleball players in Facebook groups:

  • “What paddle should I buy?”

Without knowing specific information about the person’s style of play, how can a stranger answer that with great insight? Also, many answers come from ambassadors of a particular paddle company. So they’re not exactly objective. I write for Hudef, obviously, so don’t ask me because I’m not going to recommend another brand. I would advise paddle shoppers to demo as many as possible, try friends' paddles, watch reviews, check out paddle databases. And as the popular paddle reviewers Chris Olson, John Kew and Braydon Unsicker have told me, unless you’re better than a 3.5 rated player, there’s no reason to pay more than $150. There are plenty of terrific, high quality paddles under that price point. Also, do research on the company, especially if it’s a new or smaller firm. Check out its return policy and warranty.

  • What court shoes should I wear?

Without knowing specific information about the person’s feet, how can a stranger answer that with great insight? My answer is see your podiatrist. When I started playing I saw my podiatrist to discuss what type of court shoes would be best for me, I tried on numerous pairs and I got custom fitted orthotics.

Four years ago, on May 26, 2020, a dream of mine came true when my book was published. Writing Confessions of an Investigative Reporter was high on my bucket list, but I never expected it to hit #1 in its category on Amazon, and a few copies still sell regularly because the stories in the book aren’t dated, they’re personal and historical. A heartfelt thank you to readers and the reviewers for your support and kind words.

Now I’m thinking of writing a second book, about, what else, pickleball.