I spent this morning on the "yard" at San Quintin Prison, playing tennis with the inmates. The prison has a tennis court, built right in the middle of the yard with hundreds of inmates shuffling about, shooting hoops, playing dominoes, working out or just milling about.
The guys who play tennis are a remarkable bunch. They are serious about their game, play whenever they can during the week and are really happy on Saturday morning when authorized "outsiders" come to play with them.
We play round robin; first team to 4 wins and a new foursome takes the court. They seem to have an understanding among themselves about who plays when. It is competitive but, believe it or not, very gentlemanly. Everyone is encouraging, with lots of high-fives and there is no cheating or bad line calls. The best part is when I am not playing, I am sitting on the bench with the guys, just chatting.
The tennis players in San Quintin are without attitude or posturing. Some do yoga or go to school. Some work in various prison jobs like making furniture, or stocking or cleaning cell blocks. Keep in mind some of these guys are there for life and they look pretty young to me.
In case you are thinking they have a soft life there, playing tennis and hanging out with civilians, think again. One guy showed me his lunch. It was 2 slices of white bread, a piece of bologna and mustard with a handful of corn chips. They can not receive gifts from the outside. If they have the money, they can order things from a catalog (tennis shoes, clothes, food items, personal supplies) every three months up to 30 lbs. There is no internet, no ipods, no electronics, no cable TV.
People ask if I feel "safe" there and I must say I do. Certainly the tennis players are respectful and warm. The other prisoners in the yard watch us but keep a respectful distance and no-one has ever made a comment or shown any aggression. Of course there are 4 guard towers with guns pointed down at all times.
One of the tennis inmates told me this cell block is less troublesome and there is less gang activity or fighting. Most of them are long timers or even lifers. I was told that "Bert", one of the guys I played with before was finally released after 23 years. I hope he is playing tennis on the outside.
For a look at how it is playing tennis in San Quintin, watch this.