San Quentin inmates find community through tennis

BY JANIE MCCAULEY

9 September 2022 GMT

AT SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON, Calif. (AP) – Stefan Schneider needed a nickname, or what they call it in prison.

So the inmates quickly began brainstorming for the college tennis player, who was making his first visit to San Quentin.

“Finesse,” offered 22-year-old Braydon Tennison.

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

A Winner – Twinkle Toes stuck immediately.

“Blink,” Tennison said with a grin. “We couldn’t give him hardcore because he looks like such a nice kid.”

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

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

For a few hours, these prisoners were just tennis players enjoying competitions and being able to forget their lives behind bars for a while – even looking at the cell blocks from all directions.

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Hundreds of inmates fill San Quentin’s sprawling exercise yard every Saturday morning to train in all manner of ways — walking lunges, pull-ups, chin-ups and push-ups, punching bag punches, ab exercises, and even bench presses at picnic tables. Basketball and baseball games take place simultaneously on an area the size of about three football fields.

Every corner is filled with activity and energy. Others wait for their haircut or play checkers, dominoes and horseshoes.

A single tennis court sits to one side of the site, its back fences so close to the lines that a well-placed lob will send someone crashing into the chain links with no chance of keeping a point alive. Half a dozen regulars start playing at 8am

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

Tennison – who notes “you’ll never believe my last name, I should play” – cherishes the chance of being back on the court. The 6-foot-3 lefty started playing tennis when he was 16 in high school.

“I would have continued acting but got into legal trouble,” said Tennison, who also writes poetry and performs Shakespeare plays in prison. “I just have a great love for it, I love it. I’m just grateful to be somewhere where I can play.”

The tight-knit tennis crew gathers at every opportunity, many aiming to hit the court every day, usually after their work shifts or college classes. They are thrilled to be back out after almost constant lockdown for 2 1/2 years during the pandemic.

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

That’s because they have their own tennis etiquette: all tight balls are usually announced to avoid a confrontation.

That’s not to say that trash talk doesn’t exist. When he’s not playing baseball nearby, Kolby Southwood might join the tennis squad and flatten Matt “Doc” Montana by calling him “Grandpa” and cutting a short ball for Montana to run.

As a former tennis pro and a key figure in player improvement, Montana holds his own with ease. The 67-year-old former chiropractor hails from the Bay Area and has been teaching for 30 years. He’s spent countless hours with some of the inmates, teaching them the basics and always sending newcomers to the batting wall so they can develop a rhythm for themselves.

“I’m giving these guys a few tips to help them out,” said Montana, who also stretches and does yoga on the court. “It was very difficult with the pandemic. We had lockdown after lockdown.”

Montana, who has lived in San Quentin for the past 3 1/2 years and is taking classes in sociology and psychology, is so grateful to have the farm.

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

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

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

Leong is an English professor at Diablo Valley College and also acts. He wears an old-school headband, and the occupants lovingly cheer on their friend “Alley Pat” — the handle is a nod to his precise accuracy across the board.

Schneider and his mother, Margie Moran — a longtime tennis player from Alameda, an East Bay suburb who plays on multiple USTA teams at the same time — were some of the first visitors allowed to San Quentin for this program when pandemic restrictions were lifted.

These unique sports programs are not new. Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers played at San Quentin five years ago, a tradition that pitted team staff against inmates. San Quentin has also hosted athletes in softball, soccer, flag football, and a 100-mile running club.

The experience for those invited to participate in the prison is often life-changing and offers a deep insight into the lives of a largely forgotten population.

“I didn’t expect anything like this … there’s so many of them all in one place,” Schneider said. “I really liked how they found a community for tennis with these 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 was pretty cool to see.”

Wilson restretches racquets, conducts tennis team tryouts, and is responsible for equipment.

He loves the days when players come in to provide the San Quentin team with some much-needed competition. It lightens the monotony of prison life.

Wilson’s mother introduced him to tennis around the age of 7. Growing up, however, he always stuck with the big sports — soccer, basketball, and baseball, which by spring “were in conflict with tennis.” Wilson hopes to one day be able to play outside the walls again.

“Keep studying, stay healthy and come to my mother before she dies,” he said of what keeps him going after nearly four decades in prison. “She is my rock.”

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“Wow! Good shot, Stefan!” Wilson yelled.

“Yes, Kenny! Got it nice!” cheered Moran.

fist punches. Clink clubs to celebrate good shots or to encourage the next chance. It felt horribly like a friendly day of tennis that could have taken place in any public park rather than within these prison walls.

At the end of a 2 1/2 hour session on this sunny and warm mid-August morning, with a humble speaker under the bench quietly playing classic rock, Wilson brought the group together in a team huddle: “One, two, three , inside-outside tennis!”

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

By then, Ten had been practicing taking on twinkle toes – and the inmate proudly smashed an ace serve past Schneider.

“I reached my goal! I’ve surpassed Stefan!” he announced.

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

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

A smiling Ten just shrugged, put a finger to his head as if thinking, then exhaled, “These things take time.”

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McCauley, a former collegiate tennis player who returned to competitive tennis in 2021 after more than two decades, was invited by Leong as a tennis player to join the program. San Quentin officials allowed her to write about the experience.

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