Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tennis at San Quentin

Many people can't understand why a law abiding citizen like me would go to San Quentin Prison and play tennis with the inmates.  I've written on this before and it is a fascinating look at life we don't usually get to witness.  Today was another San Quentin tennis day where I got to play some good, friendly tennis as well as hear some stories of redemption.

I spent a good deal of time talking with an inmate named Sam (not his real name).  He was doing 15 to life for a stabbing death of another young man.  Sam was on a date and two other guys started harassing them. It was an unanticipated fight with a stranger that got out of control.  One day you're a student and the next day you are going to prison for life.

Sam came into San Quentin at age 18 and has spent 24 years there.  He is in the college program, the tennis team ("inside tennis") and has a job making furniture for which he is paid .25/hour.  They have a commissary at San Quentin and the prisoners can buy food and (authorized) magazines there.  They can order items like tennis shoes too.  They are not allowed any electronic equipment - No ipods, cell phones, computers.  On the yard I see some guys with old fashioned sony walkmans so some music is permitted.

Because of California prison overcrowding, the guys are often transferred to other facilities with no warning.  Sam was transferred to another California Prison and  he told me he spent 8 horrific months there.  There were no cells, just dorm living with no privacy, constant noise, guys playing loud dominoes (slamming the tiles down and shouting) from early AM to late night.  He said he had to be on guard from the moment he arrived and had not one person he could trust.  Most of the prisoners were on psychiatric medication and one was defecating all over the dorm.  The guards would not provide clean up material so Sam took it upon himself to clean daily.

"I spent every waking minute avoiding altercations, scanning the environment, staying alone on my bunk, trying to avoid a fight"  Sam said.  "I had to be altert to everything to avoid being pulled into a fight or worse.  I'm coming up for parole.  I can't risk  anything that would affect that and being at _____prison really put me at risk."

When one guy got in his face and threatened him over something as silly as a magazine, Sam used some very impressive skills to defuse the situation.  He pulled the guy aside, away from the others ("saving face technique") and talked in a low voice to engender trust and "respect".  Respect is very important in prison.  I learned the worst thing you can call someone is a "b___ch".  Those are fighting words.

Just when Sam felt his lowest, he got transferred back to San Quentin.  San Quentin is unlike other prisons, and many of the men have experienced them all.   They actually have rehabilitation and programs and the lifers are a pretty mellow bunch.  They are long past their gang-bang youth years and many do yoga, tennis, meditation and have come to personal terms with their past.

Sam will be coming up for parole in a few months and hopes to get out.  All the guys talk about getting out but in the 3 years I have been going to San Quentin, I know of only one who was paroled.  The sad thing is that Sam has no family on the outside.  A cousin ("she's not really a relative") has written him over the years.  That's it.

Frankly I don't know how anyone survives in this world without family.  It is a tough life if you don't have a safety net and too many of the men in prison have never had a functional family that supported them or believed in them or gave them any kind of launching pad for life.

Playing tennis with the civilians gives these men an opportunity to feel "normal" for a little while.  They can practice social skills with "civies".   They are on their best, courteous behavior and I've never heard an angry word, a swear word or even a bad line call. 

13 comments:

Michael Kirsch, M.D. said...

Thanks for a glimpse into another universe.

Raymond Bouchayer said...

We are the country with the most inmates ....some of them because they did not have the money to hire an Attorney that would have given them an adequate defense
We do live in the country that has the best justice can buy

AK said...

I loved the accompanying photos. I kept wondering if you won the game(s) or not. I enjoy your blog because it is very informative but also filled with humor, poignancy and honesty. Thanks for introducing me to "Sam".

Dimi3 said...

Great insite, Thank you.

Fred Aronson said...

Thanks for all you do to help these men feel normal and enjoy a positive experience.

woodwoman said...

Great article.

Shelley R. said...

I really enjoyed hearing about your experience and about Sam. Thank you for being part of this program, helping them feel more like regular people. I am glad that San Quentin has so many rehabilitative programs. Good work!

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I also was totally unknown from, why the People would go to San Quentin Prison and play tennis with the inmates. and i came to know after reading this article.

Anonymous said...

It is good of you to offer them some normalcy. Most of those crimes were drug motivated. I have a couple of friends who were in San Quentin for six months in cramped quarters while waiting for a transfer to a prison with more room. They had family, my help, etc when they got out, but were not out for long before they got back in with another drug related/motivated offense. Until we get earlier family intervention with more structure and consequences, plus drug intervention and treatment, prison will be the best most of these men will know (most structured, comfortable life they know, with their basic needs taken care of with them only having to learn the official and unofficial rules of prison life). It is shame parenting skills (communication, structure, consequences) are not taught in the high schools. These men shine in prison life where, within a structured environment, they have their basic needs met, time to develop spritually, physically, even interpersonally, etc. Most of these men will do horribly on the outside even with families, due to family dysfunction and old friends and patterns. They still deserve to have positive contact with outside people, and it is good that some prisons offer these volunteer opportunities.

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In fact I think it's fantastic. I toss a tennis ball and swing, a familiar feeling. Years ago I was pretty good, but I don't play much anymore.

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I really enjoyed hearing about your experience and about Sam. Thank you for being part of this program, I’m glad I found it.Great information, Thank you.

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