Gaming the System
Several prisons worldwide are known to organize sporting events for their prisoners.
I'M HERE, LIKE MANY before me, as a member of the visiting team. San Quentin, a 159-year-old, mostly medium-security correctional facility home to 5,000-odd inmates, including the murderer Scott Peterson, is the only prison in America that invites civilians inside its walls to compete with well-behaving felons who wear spikes and swing bats. I first heard about San Quentin’s teams—the Giants and their brother team, the A’s—in the summer of 2009. I’d played baseball in college, and a former teammate, Alex, had e-mailed me about his San Quentin experience. “The tans of the prisoners were EPIC,” he wrote, “and that stereotype you see in movies about a guy dressed like a girl who gets handed around to other prisoners is absolutely true!”
I wanted to see for myself, but getting in is complicated. In 2007, a filmmaker made a documentary about the Giants (title: Bad Boys of Summer), and every spring a few Bay Area newspapers preview the season. But the prison’s wardens tightly control access and spin on these stories, and they often bar journalists who want to watch the games.
Last summer, Alex introduced me over e-mail to the Giants’ liaison to the outside world, a San Francisco real estate attorney named Elliot Smith. A diminutive 69-year-old man with a Tom Selleck mustache, Smith spends the majority of his free time as one of the Giants’ four coaches, a role that requires arranging the team’s schedule, recruiting opponents, and running a series of highly competitive tryouts each spring. (On a team dominated by lifers, attrition is rare.)
Smith is a self-described product of the sixties with a long-held interest in social justice. “You’re helping humanize people in a dehumanizing system,” he says. “Baseball is my vehicle for doing that. I spend a lot of time talking to guys while the game’s going on. Guys need someone to talk to.”
In June, Smith told me he was short a few opponents for an upcoming game and needed players. That’s how I’ve come to be facing Mario. I’m playing center field alongside a motley collection of players from Smith’s Bay Area men’s league. There are seven of us, accountants and law-school students and beer-league all-stars, all clad in red.
Smith tells me that playing here is safe, because a spot on the Giants is perhaps the highest privilege in the California penal system, one that no idiot wants to sacrifice by picking a fight with a visitor. “You’re often dealing with people who have killed people for one reason or another,” he says. “But you have to compartmentalize that: they did what they did, but they’re still human beings. They’re not animals. The only trouble we ever had was two players on the same team almost getting in a fistfight. A guard raised his rifle, then realized they were visitors.”
During warm-ups today, a siren went off and all the inmates, including the Giants, sat down on cue while the guards in the rifle towers did a sweep of the yard. This was zero-tolerance time. Still, there are no officers on the field, just us and the Giants. And, it should be noted, before we walked into the prison, via a series of wrought-iron gates out of Game of Thrones, Smith told me, “As a formality, I have to warn you that they don’t negotiate for hostages here.” I laughed, he didn’t.
The ball emerges from Mario’s hand like a fresh egg, and reflexes take over. I reach out and get all of it, which is to say I feel nothing. When you hit a baseball perfectly, it’s all light and air, as if performing this most difficult task were the easiest trick in the world. The ball takes off toward right center and I sprint toward first, then nearly face-plant after slipping on a slick metal plate that sits, inexplicably, in the middle of the baseline. When I right myself, I see the ball land in the center fielder’s glove, just in front of a group of Hispanic guys playing chess. Warning-track power is a cruel lord.