US prison inmates find community through tennis

Stefan Schneider needed a nickname, or a nickname as they say in prison.

So the inmates soon began thinking about the college tennis player making his first visit to San Quentin.

“Finesse”, proposed Braydon Tennison, 22 years old.

“Twinkle Toes,” suggested another inmate named Kenny, who preferred not to give his last name out of respect for his victim’s family.

A winner – Twinkle Toes immediately stuck.

“Twinkle for short,” Tennison said with a smile. “We couldn’t give him a hardcore one because he looks like such a nice boy.”

Later, “Ten” beamed and cheered as the now 20-year-old Schneider showed everyone his strong game.

“See, I knew you were taking it easy,” Tennison said emphatically.

For a few hours these prisoners were just tennis players for competitive fun and a chance to forget about their lives behind bars for a little while – even with the cell blocks in sight in every direction.

Hundreds of inmates fill San Quentin’s sprawling exercise yard every Saturday morning to train in all manner of ways – lunges, pull-ups, chin-ups and push-ups, punching bags, crunches, even picnic tables. fuck. There are basketball and baseball games happening simultaneously in the space, roughly three football fields.

Earl Wilson, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, returns during a tennis match against visiting players in San Quentin, California on August 13, 2022.

Every corner is filled with activity and energy. Others wait their turn to have their hair cut or to play checkers, dominoes and horseshoes.

A single tennis court sits on one side of the field, its back fences so close to the lines that a well-placed lob will send someone crashing into the chain links with little chance of keeping a point alive . Half a dozen regulars start playing at 8 a.m.

“Are you ready, Ten?” yelled inmate James Duff, beaming. He only started tennis last August and is already a highly skilled player.

Tennison – who notes “you’ll never believe my last name, I was supposed to play” – cherishes the chance to be back on the pitch. The 6-foot-3 southpaw started playing tennis in high school at age 16.

“I would have continued acting but I got in trouble with the law,” said Tennison, who also writes poetry and performs Shakespearian plays in prison. “I just have supreme love for it, I love it. I’m just grateful to be somewhere where I can play.”

San Quentin State Prison inmate Braydon Tennison reacts after giving up a point during a tennis match against visiting players in San Quentin, Calif., August 13, 2022.

San Quentin State Prison inmate Braydon Tennison reacts after giving up a point during a tennis match against visiting players in San Quentin, Calif., August 13, 2022.

The close-knit tennis team comes together at every opportunity, with many aiming to hit the court every day, usually after their shifts or college classes. They are thrilled to be outside again after almost constant confinement for 2 and a half years during the pandemic.

“It gives us a piece of community to get out of prison drudgery mode,” said Earl Wilson, captain of the San Quentin tennis team who has been incarcerated since 1985 – about 37 of his 60s. “It gives us a feeling of family. People love to come and say it’s better to come here because we don’t fight.”

This is because they have their own tennis etiquette: all close balls are usually called to avoid confrontation.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t chatter. When he’s not playing baseball nearby, Kolby Southwood could join the tennis squad and hit Matt “Doc” Montana calling him “Grandpa” and chopping a short ball to get Montana running.

A former tennis professional and key leader in player improvement, Montana easily holds his own. The 67-year-old former chiropractor is from the Bay Area and taught for 30 years. He spent countless hours with some of the inmates, guiding them through the fundamentals while always sending newcomers to the punching wall so they could develop a rhythm on their own.

“I’m giving these guys some pointers to try to help them out,” said Montana, who also stretches and does yoga on the court. “It’s been very difficult with the pandemic. We’ve had lockdown after lockdown.”

Montana, who has been in San Quentin for 3½ years and is taking sociology and psychology classes, is so grateful to have the court.

“When the bus got here and I saw the tennis court, I was like ‘Ahhh’,” he recalls.

Kenny Rogers found joy in trying something new while serving his sentence. He has been there for 14 years and notes: “This tennis was my new spark.”

Stefan Schneider, left, shares tips on his serving technique with San Quentin State Prison inmate Kenny Rogers in San Quentin, Calif., August 13, 2022.

Stefan Schneider, left, shares tips on his serving technique with San Quentin State Prison inmate Kenny Rogers in San Quentin, Calif., August 13, 2022.

Patrick Leong helps run the “Inside-Outside” program by coordinating these visiting volunteer players like Schneider to play doubles with inmates at San Quentin – California’s oldest correctional facility and home to the only gas chamber in the state. State.

An English teacher at Diablo Valley College, Leong also acts. He sports an old-fashioned headband and the inmates cheer their friend “Alley Pat” affectionately – the grip is a nod to his pinpoint accuracy down the line.

Schneider and his mother, Margie Moran — a longtime tennis player from the East Bay suburb of Alameda who plays on several USTA teams at once — were among the first visitors allowed to San Quentin for this program. as pandemic restrictions were lifted.

These unique sports programs are nothing new. Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers played in San Quentin five years ago, a tradition in which team employees took on inmates. San Quentin has also hosted softball, soccer, flag football athletes, and a 100-mile running club.

The experience of those who are invited to participate in prison is often life changing, offering profound insight into what it is like for a population that is largely forgotten.

“I didn’t expect something like this…there are so many in one place,” Schneider said. “I really liked how they found a community for tennis with those 10 guys, and it seemed like they were having a lot of fun. They’re obviously really good for the time they’ve been playing, so it’s was pretty cool to see.”

Wilson holds the racquets, leads the tennis team tryouts, and is in charge of the equipment.

He loves the days when the players come in to give the San Quentin team much-needed competition. It brightens up the monotony of prison life.

Wilson’s mother introduced him to tennis when he was 7 years old. Yet he always stuck to the major sports growing up – football, basketball and baseball, which “conflicted with tennis” in the spring. Wilson hopes to one day play beyond the walls again.

“Keep learning, stay healthy and join my mother before she passes away,” he said of what’s keeping him going after nearly four decades inside. “She is my rock.”

“Wow! Good luck, Stefan! Wilson shouted.

“Yay, Kenny! Welcome!” Moran exclaimed.

San Quentin State Prison inmates and a group of visiting players break up a huddle after playing tennis together in San Quentin, Calif., August 13, 2022.

San Quentin State Prison inmates and a group of visiting players break up a huddle after playing tennis together in San Quentin, Calif., August 13, 2022.

Punches. Rackets click to celebrate good shots or to encourage the next chance. It looked a lot like a friendly day of tennis that could have taken place in any public park rather than inside these prison walls.

At the end of a two-and-a-half-hour session on a sunny, warm mid-August morning, with a modest speaker under the bench quietly playing classic rock, Wilson called the band together for a team huddle: ” One, two, three, Indoor-Outdoor Tennis!”

They said goodbye and the visitors walked through the prison gates, to see each other again in two weeks.

By then, Ten had been practicing to face Twinkle Toes – and the inmate proudly hit an ace in front of Schneider.

“I reached my goal! I beat Stefan! ” he announced.

“It made his day,” said Moran, delighted with Tennison’s achievement.

So how about a nickname for Twinkle’s mother, Moran?

A smiling Ten simply shrugged, put a finger to his head as if in thought, and then exhaled, “These things take time.”

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