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Last week, Oak Hill beat Wilson, 28-14.

The outcome wasn’t in much doubt after Oak Hill scored on its first play from scrimmage, and again on a fumble recovery, to go up 16-0 just three minutes into the game. Yet, given the different stakes for each team, it’s amazing the final score was that close. The kids from Wilson were playing only for a spot in the city’s junior-varsity football championship.

The kids from Oak Hill were playing to get out of jail.

Only for a day, but still.

With the win, Oak Hill Youth Center, the city’s only maximum-security prison for juveniles, will now face H.D. Woodson for the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) JV title this weekend at Cardozo. Other than for court appearances, this will be the first time some of Oak Hill’s players have left the grounds all season.

For logistical and legal reasons, Oak Hill plays an all-home schedule.

William Haith, in his second year as Wilson’s JV coach, says he didn’t even know Oak Hill had a team until last week, when he was told by league officials that his Tigers would be playing there in a semifinal. Turns out Oak Hill has had a team in the DCIAA since 1999. Because of academic and enrollment restrictions the conference places on varsity student-athletes, the facility runs only a JV program.

In pep talks he gave in the days before the game, Haith tried convincing players that it would be business as usual come kickoff.

“I told my guys that it was just another game, that Oak Hill puts their pants on one leg at a time, just like us,” Haith says.

But, as Haith expected, there would be little about the contest that made “just another game” ring true. Prisons aren’t equipped with visitors’ locker rooms, so the Wilson players had to travel the 30 miles or so to get to Oak Hill, which is located outside Laurel, Md., dressed out in their uniforms—most of it in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Oak Hill, however, did provide Wilson the transportation: a vehicle known as the “a.m. court bus,” which is basically a cell block with wheels used primarily to ship defendants downtown for trials.

Haith’s team hadn’t ever been forced to wait in a long line to be patted down and searched before entering an opponent’s field, either. A trash can marked “Weapons Unload” sat by the pat-down station. In case any of the kids forgot they were entering a prison, the rolled razor wire surrounding them served as a reminder.

Rodney Henderson, who has been on the Oak Hill staff for 19 years and is the only football coach the team has had since joining the DCIAA, has heard all the visitors’ complaints before. He doesn’t deny his squad has a huge home-field advantage, either. He just asks opposing coaches to look at the big picture.

“I tell them that my kids are really their kids, too,” he says. “My players are going to eventually get released, and they’re going to go to schools all over the city and maybe play for these coaches at [the varsity] level.”

That spiel often works.

“They see that it takes a village to raise a child,” he says. “And I think a lot of coaches come here to recruit. At the end of the games, after we’ve beat them, other coaches usually shake my hand, then say, ‘When’s so-and-so getting out?’”

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But come playoff time, coaches can get preoccupied by the little picture. In the frisking line, a Wilson assistant tried to keep his players from dwelling on the surroundings by yelling “This ain’t The Longest Yard!” over and over. There were some scenes during the game that seemed taken straight out of that football-in-prison movie, however. Because of restrictions on outsiders, referees used kids from Oak Hill to work the first-down chains. The chain gang didn’t hide its biases. At one point in the game, referees stopped the action to tell one kid to quit screaming at Wilson’s players—“You gonna get run over!” among the taunts—at the end of every play.

The security restrictions also meant Wilson could bring only players, coaches, and assistants inside the jail. (Members of the media were also granted permission.)

“We had nobody there who was for us,” Haith says. “But the Oak Hill players had all their fans, or, well, I don’t know what you call the other people who live there.”

“Inmates” is as accurate a word as any, but Haith’s hesitation to use it is understandable. It’s such an adult word.

And Oak Hill is, by law, for kids. But not a good place for kids.

Staffers will tell anybody who will listen that the facility—which over the years has held truants and murderers and everything in between, aged 8 to 21—is a hellhole.

Vincent Schiraldi, director of D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabiliation Services, is the de facto warden of Oak Hill. Along with running the prison, Schiraldi is the facility’s chief critic. Since being confirmed by the D.C. Council to take control of the agency in the spring, he has also become the point man on the long-running campaign to have Oak Hill closed.

Schiraldi grew up in Brooklyn around the time Dog Day Afternoon was filmed there. That 1975 movie’s most famous scene—with Al Pacino leading a crowd outside a bank he’s robbed in chants of “Attica! Attica!” after the legendarily cruel New York prison—represents the high point in the prisoners’-rights movement in this country.

America is now either a wiser or more hateful place than it was back then, depending on one’s view on the role of the penal system. To Schiraldi, who has the accent and energy to reprise Pacino’s role if Dog Day is ever remade, Oak Hill is a byproduct of several decades in which lawmakers have competed with each other to make prisons less humane with every statute.

He wants it gone.

“Look around! It’s like a concentration camp,” he says. “It’s a Turkish prison here. This isn’t a place for kids. I want somebody to knock this down, pour salt on this earth, and hope nothing grows on this evil land.”

Schiraldi’s post–Oak Hill vision involves placing youth offenders in smaller, group-home situations at sites within the city. He’s also a big proponent of the rehabilitative powers of team sports, and as long as Oak Hill’s standing, he intends to use them to give kids hope of an existence on the other side of the razor wire.

He’s gotten particularly close to the football team. Last year, Oak Hill’s JV football squad also won its semifinal game. But at the last minute, the facility’s then-director did not allow players to travel to play in the championship, at Cardozo. During summer practices, Schiraldi stopped by to promise coach Henderson and the players that if they earned a spot in the 2005 title game, he’d guarantee they’d be allowed to show up—no matter where the contest was played.

The players went 4-0 during the regular season. That earned Oak Hill the semifinal date. The quick start against Wilson showed that the Oak Hill kids still had their eyes on the prize.

“We’re going to see some chicks!” an Oak Hill lineman chanted while standing at the back of the traditional postgame handshake line, exuding as much glee as John Elway yelling, “I’m going to Disneyland!” after the Super Bowl.

The Oak Hill players then launched a spontaneous tribute—cheering “Vinny! Vinny! Vinny!” in unison—to the guy who either cares deeply about them or is an actor of incredible talents.

Schiraldi responded with a sweet, stern pep talk of his own, in preparation for the trip to Cardozo.

“This means you’re going to be out in the community,” he told the winners. “This means no cussing! No screwing around! They think you’re just a bunch of criminals! We’re gonna make people see you have a lot to offer!”

As soon as Schiraldi was done talking, a call came from off the field for the Oak Hill players to head “back to your units.” But first they were told to line up for a head count, to make sure no inmates had escaped with the Wilson kids.

—Dave McKenna

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.