In 1852, a small ship carried 50 convicts from San Francisco to San Quentin, where work began on a prison building. Two years later, it became the first, and remains the oldest, California penal institution. Today, it houses 5,800 inmates. Of these, 685 are on death row.
San Quentin is a grim and forbidding place. But on Saturday mornings from March through November, an unlikely gathering of tennis players on a lone court in the vast recreation yard provides a unique counterpoint. One group, the "Inside Tennis Team," consists of 18 prisoners, including many serving life terms. The other, men and women from the Bay Area and beyond, are volunteers.
For three hours, the court is the venue for competitive tennis and friendly banter, as visitors play with and against San Quentin team members. Tennis isn't limited only to local volunteers: Michigan State, Cal and Stanford, among others, have also come to teach, play and tour, inspired by an ESPN film about the prison team.
Though tennis is the common denominator, something of far greater importance occurs during our visits. Prisoners are exposed to values, qualities and achievements that light the path to a better way of life. Their constrained and lonely lives are brightened by the support and friendship of caring strangers.
We learn from them, too. It takes only a short while to appreciate the courtesy and curiosity of these men, who have caused grievous harm to others, and be reminded that most will someday be released back into society. I want to believe they will, in small measure, be better prepared for that day because of our efforts.