The commissioner calls himself "Gee Money," and the rules for his prison fantasy football league are simple: There are 10 roster slots per team, and six teams in the league. Lineups are due every Wednesday at 8 p.m. — "NO EXCEPTIONS."
"Only men of their word are permitted to join," Gee Money wrote in a note to the league's participants. "Lets (sic) have some fun gentlemen and be respectful in the process."
Gee Money's real name is Gerald Drummond, and he's a convicted murderer serving part of a life sentence at SCI Retreat, a mental-hospital-turned-state-prison in rural Pennsylvania. He figures he probably started playing fantasy football three years ago, around the same time he was released from solitary confinement. The activity hasn't necessarily kept him out of "the hole," he said. But it helps.
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"This is how we escape our worries for a few hours a week," he wrote in a letter to USA TODAY Sports.
As fantasy football has become a ubiquitous part of the NFL season, it's also an essential part of prison life. But unlike their counterparts on the outside, prisoners face a unique set of challenges, from staying up on player news with little to no Internet access to keeping track of stats by hand to the potential for violence over gambling and unpaid debts.
USA TODAY Sports interviewed current and former prisoners and prison officials around the country about the prevalence, benefits and dangers of fantasy football behind bars. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and officials from multiple state and city prisons, including those that house women, declined to address the topic, citing fantasy sports' ties to gambling or denying that their prisoners participate in the games.
Current and former inmates – including former NFL quarterback Michael Vick – said fantasy football is commonplace in prison, and can provide a much-needed sense of purpose. Tinkering with lineups and tallying fantasy points helps prisoners to overcome loneliness and depression that accompany a lengthy sentence.
"For a large contingent of us, fantasy sports is what we live for," said Lloyd Askins, a convicted murderer who is serving a life sentence at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs, Nev. "It's a taste of the free world."
David White II shivered behind a glass wall on a 100-degree day this summer, his body unaccustomed to the air conditioning in a narrow prison interview room at the George Beto Unit, a maximum security facility outside Dallas.
"People in here have demons," said White, who reached his parole date in July after a decade in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. "Fantasy (football) helps us escape and fight off the demons."
James Kumm, a fellow inmate at the George Beto Unit and a convicted murderer, said he has leaned on a combination of his Christian faith and fantasy football while behind bars. The debate of Le'Veon Bell vs. Todd Gurley as the top fantasy football pick nests in his mind next to his favorite Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11 — which centers on hope for the future.
"Fantasy is a way of life in prison," he said.
The pair's cell block at the George Beto Unit has only two TVs, and no Internet privileges. Without the stats-at-your-fingertips luxury of the digital age, fantasy leagues at this Texas prison (and others like it) have taken on an old-school feel – reminiscent of the early days of fantasy football, shortly after Bill Winkenbach invented it in 1962.
Inmates said fantasy leagues operate almost entirely on handwritten spreadsheets. Waiver wires are often tracked for mid-season pickups. And publications like USA TODAY's Sports Weekly take on the importance of the pre-Internet era, serving as the source of official statistics.
"When they took out the box scores in Sports Weekly, we were screwed," White said. (Sports Weekly resumed publishing box scores last year and plans to continue to do so throughout the 2018 NFL season.)
In these information-starved environments, a magazine subscription or printout of an article can provide a major leg up. White compared their importance to mail from family. And Manuel Flores, a former inmate at multiple state prisons in California, said that as one of his prison leagues grew more competitive, his younger brother started mailing him recaps and notes to better his chances.
Vick, who spent 17 months in federal prison for his role in a dog fighting ring, said even he became a resource for some of the prisoners at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
"They had their little own brackets and little things going on, getting insight from me," Vick told USA TODAY Sports. "I gave it to them. I can't say I was always right. I was right a majority of the time."
Inmates said you can find all sorts of leagues in prison. There are snake drafts and auction drafts. Standard leagues and points-per-reception leagues. Drummond said it's relatively common to find multiple leagues on the same cell block – each with its own scoring system.
"For the most part, we are human," Drummond wrote in a letter. "We enjoy competition just like those on the street."
Drummond decided to limit his fantasy league to only six teams this year to avoid fights and, in his words, "foolish stuff." He said fantasy sports have been popular in the eight prisons he's been in over the past decade, and that he's learned to keep the dynamic between those he trusts.
As the commissioner of his league, the 34-year-old is responsible for keeping track of standings and rosters and tallying the points. He will run the draft, oversee free-agent acquisitions and, perhaps most importantly, keep the handwritten master copies of rosters and standings in a safe place — "away from water and the like," he explained.
But lack of technology aside, the fantasy football experience that prisoners describe is otherwise fairly normal. There's smack talk. Groups of prisoners gathering in a common location to watch games on Sundays with "big bowls of food," according to Kumm. And, as former San Quentin State Prison chaplain Earl A. Smith put it, fantasy football team names that are "hilarious but not repeatable."
Smith, who now is the team chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers, recalled inmates hurrying him to finish chapel service on Sundays so they could run to the TV and track their fantasy players.
"People who normally wouldn't communicate are friendly with each other," said Smith, the author of Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable True Stories from America's Most Notorious Prison. "It doesn't matter if a white guy or a black guy runs the (fantasy) team. It becomes 'Am I a better evaluator than you?' and 'Can my team beat yours?' "
Terry Williams, who served 36 years in the California prison system for first-degree murder and robbery, said he came to realize that sports can serve as a bridge between prisoners who might otherwise have nothing in common. Though his sentence largely predated the era of full-blown fantasy leagues, Williams said he frequently competed in weekly pools, picking games against the other seven prisoners on his cell block with the winner receiving a bag of cookies or Kool-Aid.
"It kind of transcends the racial tripping and the gang tripping," Williams said.
As the fantasy sports craze grew in the mid-2000s, Indiana Department of Corrections public information officer Edward Vazquez said staff began to discuss whether it should be allowed within prison walls.
It was ultimately determined to be a "universally bad idea," he said.
"There's always a tendency for offenders to take some of the games they play too much to heart and use it in a gambling manner, and retaliate violently," said Vazquez, who has spent nearly three decades at the Westville (Ind.) Correctional Facility. "That raises security issues for facilities like ours. It endangers our staff.
"The reality is deaths could be incurred because of fantasy sports."
Though fantasy sports does not always include stakes such as money or prizes, it often does and has turned into a big business. Research conducted for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association in 2017 estimated that the fantasy sports industry is worth $7.22 billion in the U.S. and Canada, with $3.27 billion generated by traditional, season-long leagues.
While most of the current and former inmates interviewed by USA TODAY Sports denied gambling on fantasy sports, Vick said "it went down" during his time behind bars and "there's some big-time money behind it."
"People in prison would bet on two snails racing if they found some," Drummond said.
SUNY Fredonia professor Patrick Johnson, a retired warden at Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, N.Y., said gambling – whether on fantasy sports, or any other means – is one of the largest concerns for prison staffers. Even one gambling-related incident, he said, could have a ripple effect throughout a small- or medium-sized facility, because staff might have to relocate multiple inmates to avoid future conflicts.
While exchanging money is prohibited in most prisons, inmates usually still are allowed to maintain bank accounts, stocking them with income from a prison job or gifts from family members. Prisoners can then use those funds to buy approved items at the facility's commissary or general store, which ultimately turns cans of mackerel, stamps or even Ramen noodles into a form of prison currency that can be used to gamble.
Askins, however, said the ultimate currency in fantasy sports leagues is actually smack talk. He said he'll often "run down to another inmate's cell to rub salt in the wound."
But that, too, can create tension, according to Vazquez.
"Offenders can become ultra-sensitive to being ridiculed," he said. "If you add insult to injury by owing someone money, a lot of emotions can come out and physical altercations erupt."
Or as Flores, the former California inmate, aptly summed it up: "It's all fun and games until someone just takes it the wrong way."
Fantasy sports always have provided a level of escapism for those who participate.
But for prisoners such as Askins, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, fantasy has become a way to survive an inescapable reality.
"It's something I'll never get over," he said softly. "I won't let myself get over it because the man I killed, his mother and daughter don't get to get over it."
Askins, 41, already has spent two decades in prison. And barring a successful appeal, he will die there.
"It's certainly not an easy thing to deal with internally," he continued. "You have to find some distraction, some relief. That's where fantasy (sports) means more for us than it does for a lot of people."
Fantasy Alarm president Rick Wolf, an expert in the business for 30 years, has seen fantasy sports stand in for broken family lives outside of bars — and suspected prisoners can reap similar emotional benefits.
"When they get to manage high-powered athletes like they're executives, and live and die by their teams, it gives them something," he said.
Cook County (Ill.) executive Tom Dart said that even in jails with shorter stays there's "more good than bad" that can come from fantasy sports, particularly in settings where mental health concerns run rampant.
Johnson, who retired in 2013 after 31 years in corrections, said he would support staff-monitored fantasy leagues because they can lead to "positive social behavior patterns" and, perhaps more importantly, show prisoners that there's a fun, safe way to spend leisure time when they're released. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, 95% of all state prisoners are later integrated back into society.
"One of the biggest problems that inmates have when they're released from prison … (is) when they have downtime," Johnson explained. "Teaching them how to spend their leisure time constructively is just as important as teaching them how to work and giving them education programs."
Back in Texas, Kumm constantly checked his watch out of habit in a prison interview room. His parole date won't get him home this year like White, but he's expected to be out of prison by early 2019. "I'm that close," he said.
The 31-year-old hardly followed sports growing up — until he was thrust into a "cold, harsh reality" at 17 when he was charged with murder, and convicted two years later. But now, when he's released, he said he will carry his affection for fantasy sports with him.
White, his friend and one-time fantasy commissioner, will not. He's now at a pre-release facility in Brownwood, Texas. When he's released, he estimates by December, his primary focus will be restoring his relationships with his 11- and 20-year-old sons.
"I look at fantasy in hindsight as something to appreciate," he said. "It helped me survive. It helped me get home."
Reporter Steve Gardner contributed to this report.