By Rahsaan Thomas
The San Francisco Forty-Niners took a tour inside San Quentin State Prison as part of its many programs to help rookies prepare for a successful life within and after the NFL.
“Every rookie is here except two who are graduating from Oregon today,” said Earl Smith, a chaplain for the Niners and the Golden State Warriors. “All of them have to go through my class.”
Former Niners act as mentors to the rookies. Three came along, including Jim Webb, who played from ’75 to ’80; Parys Haralson, a Niner for seven years; and Dennis Brown, a Niner from ’90-’98.
Haralson said, “We’re helping them with their transition from college to the NFL. It’s a totally different life.”
Haralson spoke about some of the programs the NFL offers, including helping men finish college, learn how to sell real estate and self-help. Haralson says he’s getting his MBA next year.
Webb said, “I want to see these guys succeed and not do stupid things.”
Brown said, “These are about to be a bunch of young men with money in their pockets, facing many temptations.”
Brown wants them to see the bigger picture.
Incarcerated men Sam Hearnes, Joey Mason, David Silva and Clay Long opened the tour in front of a water fountain just inside the prison. Curtis “Wall Street” Carroll joined later. They told the rookies about the realities of prison and their rehabilitation.
Then the incarcerated men broke off in individual groups to dialogue with the rookies, including: Demetrius Cherry, Arizona State; Jered Bell, University of Colorado; Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State; Jason Fanaika, Utah; Wynton McManis, University of Memphis; John Lunsford, Liberty University in Virginia; Darren Lake, University of Alabama; Rashard Robinson, LSU; Fahn Cooper, Old Mississippi; and John Theus, University of Georgia.
“It’s a good education for them to understand all aspects of culture and break down stigmas,” said Crystal Heart, a Niners staffer who’s been behind the scenes helping to organize tours and came for the first time. “Knowing the consequences of one choice can be life changing.”
Lunsford has visited other prisons before, but at San Quentin he experienced something entirely new.
“They wouldn’t let us near any inmates (in a super max in Virginia,)” said Lunsford. “This is how you really experience this.”
From there, Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson led the Niners around the prison, starting at the dungeon that used to serve as segregation.
“Getting locked up in the 1850s is bad news,” Franklin Smith, the son of Earl Smith, said after walking out of the dungeon. “The San Quentin of today shows there’s been a lot of changes, in that people are now being treated more humanely.”
When the rookies went onto the Lower Yard it was bustling with activity. Men were running around the track. A basketball game between the SQ Warriors and the visiting Lincoln Hill team was in progress, as well as a baseball game between the visiting Santa Monica Suns and the SQ All Stars.
Smith said he restarted the San Quentin baseball program in 1994 after a conversation with an incarcerated man sparked by seeing his baseball glove. That team was called the Pirates.
“It took nine months to build the field,” said Smith.
As the Niners walked the yard, Niners fans shouted out accolades, while Raiders fans heckled good naturedly.
Next, the Niners went to North Block and saw the small cells two men share.
“I don’t know how people like me can do it,” Cherry said. “That top bunk with the locker on top is really crowded.”
Then it was on to cages used for the Death Row inmates’ yard. The tour ended at the hospital and with the rookies having new perspectives.
“People inside the prison are just like us,” said Theus. “One bad decision can put you here. I have much more respect for (incarcerated people) than I had before.”
Cooper said, “A lot of smart individuals gave us some real good advice.”
By Rahsaan Thomas