Behind The Scenes

Going to prison to tell story of an NBA player’s work with inmates

Editor’s note: Anna Katherine Clemmons, a Reporter/Producer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, recently profiled NBA player Byron Mullens’ offseason work with prison inmates. How did that assignment happen? Here are the details.

“So, have you ever been to prison?” the assistant warden asked me.

That’s not a typical question I’m asked while on assignment.

Then again, not much about this story was “typical,” so I wasn’t too surprised.

I first learned about Oklahoma City Thunder center Byron Mullens‘ prison pick-up games in late August.

I had traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to interview Mullens for ESPN The Magazine‘s massive One-And-Done project.

We were scheduled to meet at noon on a Tuesday at Ohio State’s campus (his alma mater). But Mullens texted around 10:30 a.m., asking me if instead, I could meet him at a location an hour south of town.

I replied, “Sure, just send me the address,” to which he replied, “Can you send me your full name as it’s written on your license?”

Now I was curious. So I sent it along and asked why.

“Because you’re meeting me at a prison — that’s where I play pick-up games sometimes,” he replied.

So, my first-ever trip to prison (no, I hadn’t been before) was in late August.

I emailed my assigning editor to let her know where I was headed (on the off-chance I never made it back) and emailed Mullens’ agent about the change in locale (he was amused).

When I arrived at Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio, assistant warden Jeff Lisath and Mullens greeted me in the entryway. Surrendering my cell phone and ID before walking through the metal detector, reality sunk in: I was about to enter a prison.

Walking through the grounds was slightly nerve-racking. We had several armed guards with us, so I didn’t feel unsafe, per se … I’ve probably just seen too many episodes of The Wire. Walking next to a seven-foot guy didn’t help my plan to be ‘incognito,’ especially when we turned the corner toward the gym and saw 200-300 inmates (all men) standing around the courtyard, watching us.

After we finished the interview and I returned home, I emailed my editors at both The Magazine and ESPN.com, suggesting that Mullens’ prison pick-up games felt like their own story. ESPN.com’s Chris Ramsay, Senior Director, Editorial and Special Projects, agreed.

So I talked to Mullens about coming back again.

On my second visit to Ross Correctional in mid-November, I had another female with me (the fantastic video producer Lindsay Rovegno) as well as two cameramen.

I felt much more at-ease and the inmates we spoke with were very polite. I think they were most excited about showcasing their hoops skills for the ESPN cameras.

Our only snafu came when we requested that, as per the usual prison pick-up games, the jail officials allow a crowd of inmates to watch.

They understandably refused, citing the legality issues of the hundreds of inmates being seen on-camera (the few inmates we interviewed and who played in the game had to be cleared and signed waivers beforehand). Still, overall, everything went well.

After the story ran, I read the comments below, which were mixed; some fans said they applauded Mullens’ choice to play pick-up against inmates while others were more critical. The story garnered a lot of attention on Twitter and I received several surprised emails from friends and family, asking me if I’d really gone to prison.

“Yes,” I replied to them.

“Twice.”

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