Tennis at San Quentin
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.
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.