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.
Marc Howard, a former practice partner of Ivan Lendl's and a two-time captain of the Yale men's tennis team, is a Professor of Government at Georgetown University.