CRF Blog

Tennis at San Quentin

by Bill Hayes

Sports Illustrated has a fascinating article on an unlikely tennis program, the one at San Quentin, California’s maximum security prison near San Francisco.

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. [more]