By Rahsaan Thomas
Don DeNevi retired from his position as coach of the San Quentin recreation program, reluctantly leaving behind his most beloved job.
“I should have been doing prison work all my life,” said DeNevi. “There is no place I’d rather be than right here. I’m not happy about retiring because I don’t want to. They aren’t forcing me, but I am 78.
“The great Freud and Carl Jung say the surest sign of psychological health is being realistic about yourself. I have to be realistic. I don’t want to quit, but I have to give a younger guy a shot and the inmates deserve it too.”
DeNevi is a published author of about 35 non-fiction books, including one about Alcatraz, called Riddle of the Rock, which was made into a NBC TV movie of the week, he said. DeNevi was also a teacher of all levels from grade school to college.
DeNevi started working for the California prison system after retiring from teaching criminal justice and sociology at San Francisco State University in 1998. He was first hired as a teacher in Salinas Valley State Prison 17 years ago.
“I came to corrections in my late 60s. When I retired from teaching college, I turned my grades in on a Friday and Monday morning I was at the door of the prison,” said DeNevi.
Two years later, he transferred to San Quentin.
“I lucked out by coming to teach at CDCR,” said DeNevi. “I wanted to come to San Quentin because it is so historic. I have never seen a fight in my 15 years here. These are good men.”
He started at San Quentin teaching inmates in fifth-grade reading.
“There is no place I’d rather be than right here. I’ve been teaching (for 57 years) at all levels,” said DeNevi.
In 2002, Jean Bracey asked him to take over the coach position.
“I took responsibility for tennis; I had brown cards (volunteers) take responsibility for the others. I played tennis with the inmates for years,” said DeNevi.
He says his greatest accomplishment is building the best prison recreation program in the world.
“No prison has what we have to offer,” said DeNevi. “I inherited much of it. My job was to expand it. I am responsible for over 20 brown cards in all sports — sometimes as many as 29. It took me 15 years.”
He says he helped get the tennis court turned from a dirt surface into a concrete blue and green fenced area.
“Out of my classroom window I used to see Mohamed playing tennis. It was the reception area for the buses. They were playing on parking lot surface with an inmate-made net and tennis racquets and no fence. Urinals were off to the side; seepage came down,” DeNivi said.
He decided to build them an adequate tennis court, and asked a company called Ghilotti Construction to do the job. After six years of battling administrators, the court was built.
DeNevi recalls watching former inmate Burt Boatman play tennis.
“He was playing tennis and they lobbed him the ball at the base line,” said DeNevi. “He literally ran after it and ran up the fence and did a complete somersault while hitting the ball and running back to the net.”
DeNevi says he first became interested in prisons in 1949 after watching the movie My Six Convicts. “It’s the story of a psychologist who goes into S.Q. and it was all shot here. It’s about how he got to know six inmates that he really thought the world of,” said DeNevi. “I wanted to be like the psychologist in My Six Convicts.”
DeNevi says he volunteered to teach at Soledad, several years prior to being hired at Salinas Valley State Prison. There he taught two courses — an autobiography class and a class about how unresolved unconscious conflicts lead to criminal behavior.
“What we do, we usually have no idea why. It comes from the subconscious,” said DeNevi.
Inmate Paul Alleyne said, “During my two years at Quentin, the coach has shown nothing but concern for all sports programs, especially tennis. Although at times our relationship has been acrimonious, at the end of the day I always know that his main concern is keeping the sport program intact and making sure sports accompanies rehabilitation.”
In retirement, DeNevi will be working on finding a publisher for his latest book, Faithful Shep. It’s historical-fiction based on a true story about how nine Texas Rangers on the Western frontier in 1880 volunteered to go hundreds of miles into Apache territory to save a dog.
“I see that same kind of bravery and courage on this yard. If somebody came at me with a knife, Harris would get in the way. This is my family; you think I want to go?” said DeNevi.