San Quentin State Prison. Opened in 1852, it’s California’s oldest prison and the stuff of legend. Overlooking San Francisco Bay on 275 acres of waterfront property, the prison is home to 5,400 prisoners, including the nation’s largest population of male death-row inmates.
It also has a heck of a tennis team.
Every other Saturday morning, Leslie Lava, a municipal bond attorney with her own practice in nearby Sausalito, plays doubles matches with inmates as part of San Quentin’s extensive recreation program. She is one of 20 individuals—and the only woman—authorized by the Department of Corrections to bring in volunteers from the outside to participate in the program, which is geared toward social rehabilitation.
About 20 inmates—an elite group of lifers or “three strikers” who have demonstrated trustworthy behavior—make up the prison’s Inside Tennis Team. They play on a donated court, surrounded by an inmate-constructed fence, in the center of the recreation yard. Volunteer players are screened with background checks, and their attire and playing equipment are all carefully monitored.
“Participation in this program is viewed by the inmates as a very special privilege, and these guys are really good players,” says Lava, who first became involved in the program at the suggestion of her tennis coach as a way to help improve her game and to give back to her community. “By the end of our three hours of playing, the yard is full of thousands of guys, so it’s a great way to learn concentration. And even though I am typically the only female on that yard, and the matches are being observed by armed guards from gun towers, I feel absolutely safe.
“The guys are so very nice and respectful, and appreciative of the chance to interact with the community. It’s always a really wonderful experience.”
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Lt. Samuel Robinson, San Quentin State Prison
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