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Game Day at San Quentin

I don’t have any pictures from inside, because my camera wasn’t allowed. I don’t have any sound, because my tape recorder was held at the gates.

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San Quentin is famous as a Level 4 prison, but the security measures necessary in Level 4 combined with the overpopulation were deemed cruel and unusual punishment by a district judge a few years ago. So they switched to Level 2, keeping the overpopulation but housing inmates who have worked down their points and are, for the most part, 'programming' (getting with the program). The inmate soccer team hasn't been able to play an outside team for some time because of a Hispanic inmate lockdown that's been in effect for a long time. Last month the lockdown ended, and we were cleared to come play.

The last time a game came off, 300 armed guards with machine guns and riot gear ran through the yard over to the death-row section. We carried our drivers' license, a water bottle, and wore our cleats and uniforms into the prison. We went through several levels of clearance, learn the hostage policy, pass through sallyports, and finally reached the yard on a blistering 85 degree day.

I figured about 700 inmates were spread throughout the yard, playing hoops, lifting weights, walking the dusty track, etc. The field was part of the track and the baseball diamond outfield and some gravel. We'd heard the players would be rough. Their crimes were serious crimes -- drugs, assault, theft, etc. There's only one referee (another inmate), and no guards in the yard. We would be playing shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee, with hundreds of inmates watching. We were there as ambassadors.

Soccer is the one sport that both brings nations under one set of rules but is open and unscripted enough to allow vastly different styles of play. There are 3 universal symbols on this planet: the dollar sign $, tits, and the soccer ball. San Quentin is very segregated. The blacks wanted the hispanics to lose and rooted for us. The whites and hispanics wanted the inmates to win. We were there to bridge the gap and make friends.

Several of their players weren't hispanic -- a turkish guy, a jamaican guy, a korean guy, and we had people of those nationalities on our team who could speak their languages. The conditions, including the badly potholed field, made us very tentative for the first half. They went up 3-0 and almost got a fourth. Then a big siren blew, and all 700 inmates in the yard fell flat to the ground and urged us to lie down as well.

We sucked dust for awhile, eyeing the big gate for an invasion of guards, unclear what was going on. I was thinking, "the game has to go on. We have to get at least one goal!" After ten minutes the siren blew again and the game restarted. After that, both teams got lost in the game, forgetting everything but the ball and the teamwork.

For the next 45 minutes, we weren’t in the San Quentin yard, and they weren’t either – we were just playing the game we’d all learned back home, growing up. We were in the streets of Istanbul or Guadalaraja or Kingston or Galway or, for me, Seattle, and just playing the game we love. We ended up tying it, seconds before the end, and finished 3-3. Everyone was friendly. We asked the Korean guy to come play for us but he doesn't get out til '05.