By Connor Buestad
Sure I had my fears. Who wouldn’t? At San Quentin California State Penitentiary, you name it and they’ve done it. Murder, rape, armed robbery, the list goes on, and it isn’t pretty. Some are on death row, others are simply there for life, a few are expecting to get back out on the “outside” as they call it, sooner than later.
I arrived at the prison’s visitor’s parking lot early on a Saturday morning. Look left, and I can see the north end of the San Francisco Bay in all its glory, morning light glistening off sailboats and the Tiburon ferry. Look right, and I’m confronted with a cluster of barbed wire, bars and high walls. Two worlds, so close yet so far away.
As it came time to enter, discussion ensued among teammates about what was to be allowed into the prison. I had never been, but I assumed prison security would be tight. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Aside from peering into my bag and lazily sweeping a metal detector in front of me, the guards let me in scot free. Compare this process to that of boarding a pedestrian flight to Seattle on SWA and it’s almost laughable. Put it this way, if I wanted to bring in a Costco sized tube of Crest, no one was stopping me.
A brief trek though the Maximum Security wing of the prison, home to the infamous Scott Peterson, led us to the “yard”. Down a ramp, around a corner, and there I was in the heart of the “Q”. My first impression was, yes, this really does seem like the movies. Eliminate the new hospital that was recently built, and I could of sworn I was in Shawshank. (Red and Andy Dufrense had to be around here somewhere, I thought.) One of the first things I noticed was a large clock overlooking the yard. Ironically, it was broken. Perhaps time really did stand still in this place.
As we set down our gear and trotted out to warm up, I was amazed by how active and engaged everyone was. Sure, a few prisoners chose to spend their Saturday morning lounging with fellow prison buddies, but they were the minority. Instead, it seemed as if most prisoners were wrapped up in their own world, doing their best to get the most out of their free time outdoors. Prisoners were participating in running, boxing, horeshoes, pingpong, chess, guitar, pushups, basketball, and tennis, just to name a few. There was even a religious ceremony of sorts going on in deep right-center field, complete with a mini-bonfire and a small hut. What should have been time spent loosening up for the game, ended up being a field study for Sociology 101.
As with any baseball game, there is copious amounts of banter that takes place between the two competing teams. Playing shortstop, I was afforded a brief two-minute conversation with any San Quentin Giant who reached 2nd base. Topics breached included Pablo Sandoval’s recent slump, favorite Bay Area radio stations, and how much a Snickers costs on the street as compared to in the slammer. What struck me most, however, was the sincere “thank you’s” I received for coming inside their world to play. On three different occasions, a prisoner looked me dead in the eye and said, “thank you very much for coming, I appreciate it.” You can say what you want about the prison system in this country, but this type of compassion told me something is working.
During the course of the game we had our share of brief interruptions. One of which was called “yard down”. This occurs when there is some sort of disturbance or security issue somewhere within the prison walls. Midway through the 6th inning, I took a knee with the other 200 some-odd convicts, hoping the delay would be short lived so we could get back to the game. Two minutes later we were back at it.
I was interrupted for a second time by the prison basketball game that was taking place adjacent to our baseball game. This too was a game between a team from the outside versus the San Quentin Warriors. The interruption I speak of? Well, just an emphatic fastbreak dunk which set off a rowdy scene among the crowd of prisoners, presumably gambling on this, the “game of the week.”
The longer I spent inside these prison walls, the more I was impressed by the demeanor of its inhabitants. I went in expecting a rowdy bunch of criminals, but I instead found a calm, subdued group of individuals immersed in their activity of choice. Call me crazy, but it seemed like the prisoners were living a life of simplicity and routine that some readily enjoyed. Surely, there are horror stories that even the most loquacious prison guard would never confide in me, but the mood inside San Quentin on this Saturday could best be described as pleasant.
The San Quentin Giants ended up losing on this day. Surrendering a 4 run lead to fall by the score of 14-12. Shoddy pitching and errors on defense lead to the Giants demise, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of hustle. Following the game, the players manicured the field with water and rakes as if it was their brand new Corvette, a microcosm of the pride each player took in playing for their prison. Finally, both teams congregated on the pitcher’s mound for a brief prayer, lead by a veteran San Quentin outfielder. The topic of the prayer was religion, but the theme was undoubtedly hope. To quote Andy’s letter to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Amen.