Prison Playing


LITTLE LEBOWSKIS: The author is in the second row, next to the bare-shirted guy who got beaned.

From the parking lot of San Quentin State Prison’s East Gate complex, visitors have a sweeping view of the coastline that evokes Camelot as much as Quentin. In the distance loom the green, rolling pastures of the coastline, visible over the parapets that crown San Quentin’s walls; below them, the giant double doors of the prison’s entranceway dominate its facade.

The calm, scenic and politically liberal Marin County of present day seems an odd place for a prison, although it’s had one since 1852, when San Quentin became California’s first. Between the East Gate side and the prison’s neighboring complex, West Block, San Quentin covers 432 acres and houses over 5,300 prisoners, though it is designed to hold just over 3,000, making it one of the largest prisons in the United States. Among the buildings that make up the East Gate complex, the tallest one in the very middle is death row, home to California’s most notorious convicts and the only place in the state where male inmates are executed. Just across the way from the black, hulking building that houses death row there is a baseball field.

At San Quentin, where both baseball and softball are played—the only California prison to have either, or even a field for that matter—America’s great pastoral game has been placed within metal confines. If the prison is a dark spot on the coastline of Marin, the ball field is a glint within.

The prison’s double doors were propped open on a recent clear, warm Sunday, visiting day, as clergymen and family members of inmates filed in for an hour of face time with the incarcerated. Among the visitors, too, was our local softball team, the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, there to play an afternoon game against the San Quentin Giants, an all-prisoner team that is part of San Quentin’s baseball program dating back to the 1920s. In 1994, the program began allowing games against teams visiting from outside the prison.

Though this would be my first trip to San Quentin, our team had its own mini-history there: two games played last year, one won and one lost. Those who had played spoke highly of the experience, although a friend warned me to expect a lot of heckling, along with certain oddities that could be distracting: sunbathers in the outfield, for example, and the occasional rodent.

This trip, however, proved to be slightly less frenzied, owing mostly to the fallout from a reported race riot that had transpired days earlier. Every black and Latino inmate had been on an indefinite lockdown since that time, and the recreation yard’s population was significantly scaled back.

What visitors to San Quentin experience is a tamed-down version of the yard anyway; inmates with any disciplinary history at the prison can’t play baseball or softball, nor are they allowed anywhere outside when visitors are present. Although one gregarious inmate passing behind our dugout before the game said he’d be “heckling like a motherfucker” after his plea for sunflower seeds went unanswered (such charity is expressly forbidden), his threat proved empty.

Even by nonprison standards, the game that ensued was a quiet one. Good-natured small-talk and sportsmanship dominated the on-field discussion, and spectators who gathered behind the backstop and in certain deep corners of the outfield were, according to teammates who’d played here before, both diminished in number and uncharacteristically restrained. The shirtless umpire, an inmate, called a fair game, drawing only minimal flak from San Quentin’s players.

“One of the things I really like about [the baseball program] is that prison’s a place where it’s not really easy to make real friends—you always think somebody wants something from you,” said Chris “Stretch” Rich, one of the onlookers behind the backstop. Rich, who pitched in college, has played on the prison’s baseball team for seven years and is among the approximately 75 percent of its players who are serving life sentences.

“With baseball, it draws together people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and races,” he said. “Baseball brings people together. You can take that out into society and make something positive out of that. A lot of people in here committed horrific crimes—and a lot of people don’t want to be that person.”

While more than one inmate described the baseball field as a sort of refuge from prison life, to a visitor its place within a larger system is continuously felt. The field is wedged inside the surrounding walls with everything else; its boundaries ill-defined, and parts of the outfield are shared with joggers, loiterers and gamers, who play cards and chess on a table that’s affixed to the ground in right-center. There were no sunbathers on this trip, but upright passersby abounded, including an intermittent flock of Canadian geese. Next to the field, a doubles match unfolded on the tennis court, alongside full-court basketball game and a solitary boxer on the punching bag.

“You’re a new guy, huh?” said the first inmate I approached, and before I ever said a word. “You got that look on your face like, ‘Oh, I’m at San Quentin.'”

This was Key Lam, an outfielder who plays both baseball and softball at the prison. Lam, whose baseball career was cut short when he entered the prison system at age 20, is one of the prison’s most talented players. On this day, the muscular Lam hit two of the game’s three out-of-the-park homers (our third baseman hit the other), both opposite field shots that cleared the same bungalow, part of the improvised fence in a park whose design clearly required some imagination.

“This is the furthest thing from prison life,” Lam said.

In the end, Lam’s power couldn’t make up for San Quentin’s missing starters, whose absence may have given our team a distinct advantage. While the two games our team played last year were reportedly very close, we would win this contest handily: 27–15. Although, to be fair, that’s an unofficial score, because the game didn’t properly end.

In the bottom of the seventh, which would have been the last inning due to the approaching time limit, the Giants loaded the bases with no outs. The next batter hit a laser that took its first bounce into the ear of our shortstop, whose blood painted the ground at his position. With their precious time outside the walls winding down, the prisoners collectively decided to call the game, and some went over to check on their bloodied opponent. An ambulance arrived minutes later, unloading technicians who were also inmates (its lowest security level occupants, who stay not inside the prison but in parts of San Quentin Village); our player was cleaned up, bandaged and transported to the parking lot, where the rest of us reunited with him.

As the ambulance drove off, we were left with about 10 minutes to mingle. Prison life has never had a very good reputation, and a couple hours of baseball a week wouldn’t seem to change that too much. But the players with whom I spoke were overflowing with gratitude.

“I feel fortunate to have you guys come in and play—for taking time out of your day on a Sunday afternoon, when you could be doing a lot better things,” said Ron Dalton, although nothing could have been further from the truth. “Without you guys coming in here, we wouldn’t have the ability to play.”

Dalton, the Giant’s hefty first baseman and clean-up hitter, had good words for the prison generally. He said he’d been diagnosed with stage three lymphoma while serving time at Solano State Prison, where the medical help was shoddy. He got a transfer to San Quentin some months after the diagnosis and underwent chemotherapy there, noting that he’s now in his fifth year of “full remission.”

“It’s hard to get the kind of medical attention [at other prisons] that I got here,” he said. “San Quentin saved my life.”

Dalton (who is serving a sentence of 14 years to life but has a parole hearing later this year, about which he was optimistic) said he was on the verge of becoming certified as a drug and alcohol counselor, and that various programs at San Quentin, including a college degree program (the only one in the California prison system), have helped him make changes, as have Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, group counseling and baseball. All of it, he said, added up to the hope that redemption is attainable.

“What I want to do is make my past as fully right as possible,” Dalton said. “I want to feel like I’ve given back to the community what I’ve taken. This is part of my path.”

For Dalton and others, it seemed, the experience of playing was humanizing. Inmates repeatedly talked about the “honor” (as one put it) of interacting with the outside world, for which the games provided a setting that was itself evocative of the world outside.

“I’ve been in a lot of other [prisons], and they don’t let nobody come near you. People up here seem to care about you,” said player Shawn Hall.

“It’s like medicine,” added Pat Aronson. “You come out here and feel better. The ‘dregs of society’ is the way they look at us. For people to come in here and to be treated with respect, it’s an honor.”

 Of course, the reprieve is short-lived.

“We got about an hour to shower and get cleaned up,” said “Junkyard Broadway,” as he and the other players packed up their gear following the game. “Then, back to our cells.”