I dont have any pictures from inside, because my
camera wasnt allowed. I dont have any sound, because my tape recorder was held
at the gates.
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
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
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 werent in the San Quentin yard,
and they werent either we were just playing the game wed 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.