By Rahsaan Thomas
In most prisons, you won’t find a tennis court, mini-college campus, Microsoft Certification, coding program or a newspaper written and run by incarcerated men, as you do at San Quentin.
Robert Barnes, 54, took a class to learn how to play tennis in college for fun back in the ’80s. A horrible decision led to a seven-to-life sentence with a five-year enhancement. He said he started programming the day he was arrested to turn his life around. Housed at Centinela State Prison, there weren’t many programs available. Once he read the San Quentin News, he knew where he needed to transfer. He said he stayed discipline-free so he could get to San Quentin.
“I read the San Quentin News at Centinela,” Barnes said. “I knew about tennis and the Last Mile. I came here to try to get into Code.7370.”
He arrived at Quentin in September 2015 and applied for coding class twice but hasn’t been accepted yet. He has joined a group on the yard called Convicts to Coders to prepare for Code.7370. In the meantime, Barnes can be seen on the tennis court hitting balls, going to Patten College classes or helping fellow students figure out Intermediate Algebra.
“Tennis helps me in the classroom; when it’s done right there is a high level camaraderie and etiquette,” Barnes said. “In my English class I liked the group dynamics — we learned a lot from one another.”
Also Barnes noted tennis, coding and Intermediate Algebra require repetition to learn.
“You are not gonna get a math skill the first time,” Barnes said. “You have to go through several repetitions to get good.
“Tennis has a steep learning curve; it requires touch, ball spin control, and dedication. You can’t quit. Having developed and applied that mind-set has made me a better student and a better player.”
Tennis and college aren’t the only opportunities Barnes takes advantage of. Since arriving at San Quentin, he completed a theological training course, and he’s become a tutor for men studying to get their GEDs.
“I take my programming really seriously,” Barnes said.
Tennis wasn’t Barnes’s first love. He said he played football at John Muir High School in Pasadena. His favorite NFL team is the Seattle Seahawks.
“I’m a fan of Pete Carroll; he has a great work ethic, and he’s a player’s coach,” Barnes said. “I never had a coach like that. I really like the way he owned the mistake of the interception in Super Bowl against the Patriots a couple of years ago.”
Barnes models Carroll’s work ethic. He said he makes it a point to attend class, with one exception, the Super Bowl, which he considers a national holiday, but Patten doesn’t.
“I love the teacher’s enthusiasm and work ethic,” Barnes said. “Part of work ethic is showing up and being prepared. I won’t miss another class.”
He also puts his work ethic into his tennis game.
“My tennis game is pretty good and improving because I continue to work on it,” Barnes said. “I look for people that do well the things that I don’t and learn from them.
I needed to work on my serve, and it’s gotten much better. I try to hit at least five times a week.”
Prior to arriving at Quentin, Barnes did take some groups. He took Celebrate Recovery, a four-year seminary program called The Urban Ministry Institute, taught a GED class, and became an Alternatives to Violence Program gold-level facilitator.
In society, he worked as a full-time parent to his two children, including a son with autism.
“Being my son’s full-time caregiver was my most rewarding job,” Barnes said.
Barnes has actually had to choose between programs at Quentin. He stopped taking Christian Creative Writing because it clashed with Intermediate Algebra.
“That was a tough one,” Barnes said. “My commitment to Patten is strong; my commitment to Christian Creative Writing is strong, but it conflicted with Patten. It’s hard to give up Christian Creative Writing because it’s both a self-help group and a writing workshop; it fills both niches.”
Barnes still hopes to get into coding, but in the meantime, he said he was chosen for a pilot Microsoft Certification program with about eight other students. He sees the opportunity to be in the Microsoft program as an obligation to do well so that the program will continue and spread to other prisons.