Skip to main content

Lessons in integrity with San Quentin State Prison's tennis team


I've played tennis in countless venues and in what I thought was every imaginable setting. The dusty red clay courts in Paris, immaculate grass outside of London, Ivan Lendl's backyard U.S. Open replica court, numerous stuffy clubs and decrepit public courts with weeds growing through the cracks in the surface. But until recently I had never associated the sport with concertina wire, constant loud alarms and tower guards with rifles.

Having heard about a tennis court at California's San Quentin State Prison, I contacted Martin Silverman, a Bay Area volunteer who brings in players from the outside world. As a professor who teaches a course on "Prisons and Punishment," I considered it a perfect opportunity to bring together my passion for tennis and my interest in prisons. I arranged a visit that would coincide with an academic conference I would be attending at UC-Berkeley. My plan was to "escape" from a mind-numbing academic panel to hit some balls with convicted felons.

I arrived on a beautiful but brisk Saturday morning, along with Martin (an avid tennis player who recently "aged-up," with great enthusiasm, into the 80-and-over division) and two other outsiders who take part in a weekly tennis "league" (of sorts), where inmates and outsiders play doubles together against another "mixed" pair. I had heard that they were always in need of more racquets, so I brought a bag filled with a dozen sticks to donate to the inmates (these would have to be delivered later, after being checked for contraband).

Playing tennis in the notorious San Quentin sounds oxymoronic. But within the confines of a tennis court, these men are learning to play inside the lines. And tennis may be giving some of them the hope of finding a new direction in their lives.

My day at San Quentin coincided with the first day of the "season," and everyone was upbeat. When they saw me warming up, the Inside Tennis Team players were excited to have a "ringer" in their midst.

The Inside Team's rules are clear: sets are regular scoring, first to four games, without a tie-break. The idea is to keep circulating the players, making as many combinations as possible within the two-hour period.

The level of play at San Quentin varies widely. The top three players can all hit a heavy ball, and they have great movement and anticipation. Team captain Raphael Calix, short and stocky and in his late 40s, has bursts of speed that belie his build. He has been a tennis fanatic since watching Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors play at UCLA -- long before drugs took him down a path of crime he wishes he could undo.

James "Mac" McCartney, in his 50s and sporting a thick, white mustache and a big smile, has quick hands at the net and is a force in doubles. And my first doubles partner, Nguyenly Nguyen, soft-spoken, athletic, in his 40s and displaying a magnetic smile despite missing his four front teeth, can rip a college-level backhand. He runs around his much weaker forehand at every opportunity. Several other players have unusual-looking strokes, but can still make solid contact and hit effective shots. And still others have just started to play recently, and they are still figuring out the game.

But the point of tennis at San Quentin is not the competition. It is the appreciation of this great game, in which all players strive for perfection, inevitably fall short, yet enjoy the physical and psychological struggle so much that they go right back out there to try again.

The action was intense, but always good-spirited, and the sets went by quickly. I adjusted my shots to the levels of the other players, mixing in the lobs and drop shots typical of "hit and giggle" tennis with the occasional "heater" serve or return that some players requested.

At one point, I ran down a lob over my partner's head and, facing the back fence, hit an acrobatic behind the back shot that went straight down the line for a clean winner. The reaction from the guys watching (including those milling around in the yard) was electric and lasted several minutes. I felt like I'd won Wimbledon, as the high fives kept coming, and one guy screamed out "Did you see that? Roger Federer couldn't have made that shot!"

Later, I ran down another lob, this one deeper, but before I knew it I'd collided at full speed with the fence, which is only about eight feet behind the baseline on the tight court ("Nadal would have a hard time playing here," someone had told me earlier). I got a little cut on my hand, with a small trickle of blood. The jovial Chris Schuhmacher, a surfer-dude-type in his late-30s, with long, wavy hair and sporty sunglasses, teased me: "Hey, you come to San Quentin, you're gonna get cut!" Not long afterwards, a scrappy player named Geno caught me napping at the net and hit me with a "body blow" volley that connected with my left arm -- and he quickly raised his racquet to apologize.

In between the sets I played, I sat with some other San Quentin players -- J.T., Jason, Mohamed, Troy (who was formerly known as "Bone," but now wants to leave that name and those days behind) -- and talked about all kinds of subjects, from prison life to Georgetown basketball to professional tennis. They crave watching tennis, but only get to see the parts of the Slams that are shown on broadcast channels on a grainy television set. Overall, I was impressed by their knowledge of the outside world and their thirst for interaction with it. After quite some time had passed, I looked around and realized that I didn't even see any guards; but it had never even crossed my mind to feel threatened. We were just interacting as humans and tennis players.

Looking for some coaching tips, Chris and Geno asked for my advice about hitting a two-handed backhand. They listened earnestly and attentively as I explained the importance of turning their shoulders, getting their feet set, and how the left arm (for a righty) generates the power, while the right provides control. As they practiced the motion over and over, I was struck by the contrast to many players on the outside, who take tennis lessons in order to be entertained and complimented. The San Quentin guys really wanted to learn the stroke and improve their games.

Like other prisoners who play on the San Quentin baseball or soccer teams, the 20 or so members of the Inside Team all have records of good behavior within the prison as a condition of their participation. But they aren't angels either. Many of them are in prison for murder -- yet they will likely have a chance at parole one day. They come from every conceivable racial or ethnic background. Most important, they are united by an unlikely -- and, for most of them, previously undiscovered -- passion for tennis.

Some may object to the very notion of prisoners playing tennis. What's next, golf? But even though it is located on prime waterfront real estate, with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline on one side and of the Marin hills on the other, San Quentin -- the prison that has housed virtually every notorious California murderer and that hosts its only Death Row unit -- is no country club.

Developers would certainly salivate to convert these grounds to a fancy club or high-price condominiums, and to relocate the facility to the type of desolate area where most American prisons are located. But given the long traditions of this unique and momentous institution, built in 1852, that appears unlikely. And Johnny Cash would roll over in his grave.

Inside the prison walls, most inmates live in tiny cells that are no more than six feet wide -- two to a cell, on bunk beds. Overcrowding is so bad that the official maximum capacity of 3,300 inmates is surpassed by about 2,500 more. Some don't even get the "coziness" of a shared cell, as they are crammed into what used to be the prison's gym, where rows and rows of bunks fill up virtually every square inch of free space.

The inmates of San Quentin are a mix of violent and non-violent offenders, many doing multiple stints for parole violations, often connected to drug addictions that go untreated. Violence is common, and fear is constant. Racial segregation is actually encouraged as a means of keeping the situation relatively peaceful.

Life under these conditions -- which some international organizations have deemed inhumane, and which the Supreme Court has recently declared a violation of the 8th Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" -- does not exactly inspire hope or prepare these men for a graceful return to society.

But within these harsh privations, there's a stunning anomaly: a full-sized, well-maintained, properly-fenced, regulation-sized, green-colored outdoor asphalt tennis court. San Quentin's court provides a temporary escape from the tough and segregated environment. The court, partially built by inmates in 2004 with the help of private donations and a grant from the USTA, serves as an oasis for those who participate in the tennis program. It is nestled into the prison's gritty "lower yard," which includes a basketball court and a baseball field, 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).

The Inside Team players are extremely fortunate in some regards. Not only do they get to play tennis, but also they get to interact with visitors from the outside world -- developing ties that are so crucial for prisoners to stay out of trouble and restore their hope. They have also been treated to visits by former pros Pat Cash and Justin Gimelstob, and college teams from Stanford, Cal and Michigan State have come to play as well.

But in a larger sense, San Quentin itself is a remarkable institution, one that has resisted the tide in so many other prisons in America. Although many of its programs have also been cut by tightening budgets, its prime location in the Bay Area helps inmates to stay connected to life on the outside. A plethora of academic courses are still offered, as committed faculty and graduate students from Berkeley, Stanford and other universities volunteer to teach courses there.

Some inmates actually have the option to be in a lower-security facility within California, but they still request San Quentin, which they insist is the best of the state's 33 prisons, for one simple reason: the programs. There is no other correctional institution where prisoners can take courses taught by world-class instructors ("I'm taking a great Sociology class right now," Raphael, the team captain, told me) and play sports with people from the outside. It's almost enough to make them forget about that tiny cell where they spend most of their time.

The most profound moment in my morning at San Quentin occurred during a sustained and heartfelt conversation with Raphael, who explained that the motto of the Inside Team is "integrity." "Most people are in prison because they made bad choices, not because they're bad people," he told me. The team's objective is to use tennis as a tool to be good people.

As I thought about his words, I looked up and realized that I hadn't seen a single argument over a line call, much less a temper tantrum or thrown racquet. That's not an easy feat in a sport known for turning even mild-mannered souls into wild beasts who momentarily lose their impulse-control. In my time around the sport, I have seen many people -- whether male or female, young or old, American or French, white-collar or blue-collar -- who have great integrity in their own personal and professional lives lose control on the court. (And I confess that I too have a few embarrassing memories I try to repress.) I have also seen countless terrible line calls and heated disputes about them.

Ironically, it was a group of convicted felons who were perhaps the best-behaved and most ethical group of competitors I have ever witnessed.

When it came time to leave, Raphael gathered the full team together -- insiders and outsiders -- and gave an eloquent speech. He told us about how much it means to them for people to visit San Quentin, how much this helps them to lead good lives and be good people, and how much it motivates them to live an honest life, with integrity, on the outside someday.

His speech helped me to realize the universal humanity in tennis. The game continues to expand to new communities and new continents. And my experience in San Quentin showed me that if we believe that prisons should be about rehabilitating people who have made mistakes and paid their "debt to society," while preparing them for their eventual freedom -- as I think we should, even if this view has been neglected in recent decades -- there are few better activities than tennis to achieve that goal.