It Takes Balls
July 9, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Tennis at San Quentin

Marc Howard played tennis at California's San Quentin prison. Best quote:
it was a group of convicted felons who were perhaps the best-behaved and most ethical group of competitors I have ever witnessed.
posted by Ideefixe (20 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line
posted by Fizz at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2011 [7 favorites]

That was a nice read. I'd never heard that San Quentin was actually a preferred prison to be sent to, but seeing that they still engage in actual rehabilitation there it's not hard to see why. Here's hoping they can continue and avoid the privatization lobby.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 10:56 AM on July 9, 2011

No, this is tennis at San Quentin. Doubles, it appears.
posted by eviltiff at 11:02 AM on July 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, damn, that's what happens when I use my wife's computer. That last comment was mine, for the record.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:16 AM on July 9, 2011

alongside various spaces for inmates to play ping-pong and do creative strengthening exercises on pull-up and dip bars (weight-lifting equipment was banned in California prisons in 1998 for security reasons).

Sounds like someone watched Oz.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:38 AM on July 9, 2011

My father worked in Quentin for almost forty years. If that's the best prison in the system, oh dear lord, California's prisons have turned into shitholes.

When he passed away, they held a ceremony inside the prison, which we were allowed to attend. We also had a tour afterward, which we'd oddly never done in all the years prior. There was one message I had repeated to me from a really startling number of people, on both sides of the fence: prison is not the answer. None of them knew what was, but they knew prison wasn't it.
posted by Malor at 12:05 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

San Quentin benefits from its location next to a large urban center in that essentially all of the actual rehabilitative programs are run by volunteers. Literacy training, HIV counseling, tennis, all of it. There's no funding for those programs through the state and so they don't happen without volunteers. The Bay Area produces a lot more volunteers than Susanville.

There's also no more gym space in California prisons any more -- all full of triple-high bunks to manage the absurd and unconstitutional overcrowding.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well, yes, California's prisons are in fact unconstitutional shitholes, and San Q is better than most of them. It's the slightly more rehabilitative shithole.

The majority of people just pass through San Q at this point. It's the CDCR entry point for folks in Northern California. They go there for "orientation" and are then shipped off to another prison. A much smaller number are serving their full sentences there.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:23 PM on July 9, 2011

I had gone through a tour of that place many many years ago, when the gas chamber was still in use. Vividly recall being told not to go over, run over, break out of line if we spotted someone we knew who was an inmate.

Tennis? Here is a general rule of thumb in Lithuanian folk lore:

the smaller the ball (must be ball and not a disc), the classier the game. Thus bowling at a low end and golf way up there.
posted by Postroad at 1:43 PM on July 9, 2011

No, this is tennis at San Quentin. Doubles, it appears.

Remember when Google Maps first came out and then Internet spent ages trying to find actual people on there?
posted by bruzie at 1:50 PM on July 9, 2011

> the smaller the ball (must be ball and not a disc), the classier the game.

So, marbles is the game of the true nobility?
posted by Horselover Phattie at 2:41 PM on July 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm continuously surprised at people that think that people in prison are somehow different than "normals", like they're monsters or something, rather than just individuals that have made poor choices, or riden a wave of fate beyond their control.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:13 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

So, marbles is the game of the true nobility?

Shooting each other with BB guns.
posted by starman at 4:18 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Drag at San Quentin. [self link]
posted by unliteral at 4:44 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tennis at San Quentin

To the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash

i see that ball a-comin'
it's flyin' cross the net
you ain't seen me play tennis?
you ain't seen nuthin' yet
I'm playin' in San Quentin
and I'm the best what am
when I see that ball a-comin'
I give that old grand slam

when I was just a baby
my mama told me boy
you see this tennis racquet here?
well, son it ain't no toy
and she taught me how to crosscourt
and how to serve the ball
now I'm playin' in san Quentin
and lord I beat them all

now if they freed me from this prison
you can bet where I would go
I'd head on out to Wimbledon
I'd win that cup you know
I'd show 'em all a love game
I'd make the tip-top rank
and this here ex-con would show 'em
a different kind of shank
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:04 PM on July 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was in college at Berkeley in the late '90s, a student group I was involved in (religious,* with a social justice bent) got hooked into the same program and I went in to San Quentin a few times to play soccer and basketball with/against** the inmates. Each time we went in, we got the same lecture about how the prison has a no-negotiating-for-hostages rule, so in the event a riot broke out we would be on our own. (Also: don't ask anyone what they're in for and don't give anyone anything, since they'll ask.)

This was always followed up with a reassurance that (a) it was a special treat for the inmates to mix with and play against new faces, so they were going to be on their best behavior lest the opportunity to do this again would be revoked and (b) we were only going to be mixing with Level 2 (minimum) security inmates; there was a Level 4 (max) facility on site too, but obviously it was segregated and out of view.

I did have a bit of a "whoa" moment when the gate clanked shut behind us the first time we went in, but the yard itself was pretty anticlimactic. Dirt soccer field, your basic asphalt basketball court, inmates and staff milling around. I never felt unsafe, just a little embarrassed at my own lack of coordination and toughness. I like soccer, and have the body type for basketball, but these guys focused all their spare time and energy at competition and it showed. Our band of peppy and overall athletic twentysomethings were roundly, soundly defeated by a motley all-ages crew of inmates during the first soccer match.

The games didn't really matter though. We were socializing with guys*** who generally had a pretty different path through life than we had, and they embraced us. Everyone got a nickname based of where they were from (or were perceived to be from), except for a friend of mine with distinctive facial hair they called Thundercat.

Back in Berkeley we shared the experience and tried to drum up interest in a regular student/inmate playoff, but partly through my senior year we were suddenly unable to get in touch with the coordinator on the San Q side. Prison bureaucracy I take it is pretty much impenetrable so if you lose one contact, you're pretty much SOL for bridging any communication gaps. I don't know if they were ever able to start it up again at the university, but I'm glad to hear with this tennis thing there's some sort of inside/outside sporting partnership going.


**Depending on how many people we brought in, we were either able to field a full student team against the inmates or we just got mixed in together. Once in midsummer there were only three of us going to play basketball and at some point in the second half we had all subbed out ...when the athletic director (I forget his actual role) noticed we were all sitting on the bench at once, he cried out, "That not how it's supposed to work!" and despite my exhaustion, I got yanked in again. The inmates were always courteous, but their intensity was boundless.

***There were a small contingent of female students who voiced their dissatisfaction with being unable to participate. (Obviously, that'd be a nonstarter.) I think the nearest women's prison was Susanville, but I have no idea if they had any sort of similar program.

posted by psoas at 7:57 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm continuously surprised at people that think that people in prison are somehow different than "normals", like they're monsters or something, rather than just individuals that have made poor choices, or riden a wave of fate beyond their control.

Really? Do you think there is no such thing as people who are different or worse than "normals" who've had some bad luck? Where else would you expect them to be?
posted by msalt at 8:15 AM on July 10, 2011

Let's compromise: One's love of a good game of tennis is apparently not diminished by the fact that one is a murderous scumbag.

And yeah, "poor choices" and "wave of fate" certainly apply to plenty of non-violent offenders, but can't we at least still vilify guys who gun down gas station attendants in order to empty the till?
posted by ShutterBun at 5:51 PM on July 10, 2011

Back to the topic at hand though; great program. My brother is a volunteer with it and knows most of the inmates mentioned in it. Worthy of your time or money if you have any to spare.
posted by msalt at 11:44 AM on July 12, 2011

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