Basketball game between staff and incarcerated creates sense of community at San Quentin
The blocked shot from San Quentin Warriors center Tyler “Drizzy” Cooper on Correctional Officer A. Davis set the tone for how history was made in San Quentin on an autumn day. Prison staff and the incarcerated battled it out in the paint on the basketball court to try to bridge the gap between them.
“I am glad to be a part of this opportunity,” said Officer Davis. “I heard this might happen and I did not think it would be true, but I said count me in.”
To help bridge that gap of the “us against them” mentality that has been separating the two sides for decades, Lt. G. Berry, the first Black woman to work as Public Information Officer of San Quentin, also made history as the first female head coach of the incarcerated team. She blazed an unprecedented path for her peers to follow.
“This is the first step towards change,” Berry said. “We are looking to break down barriers and old prison ideologies. It’s time for change.”
With change being the theme for the day, Coach Berry implemented three plays, which included one in her honor called “The Berry” that worked in her team’s favor.
Coach Berry, resident Assistant Coach Jeremiah Brown, and the incarcerated team beat resident Coach Ishmael “Ish” Freelon and Assistant Coach Greg Eskridge and the prison staff team in the prison’s inaugural scrimmage, 82–50.
“I never thought I’d be coaching correctional officers,” Elkridge said. “With the support of the institution, it’s off to a good future. This is a good look for the carceral system.”
The incarcerated players dominated rebounds off the Plexiglas backboard, baseline shots, perimeter shots, and long-range jumpers behind the three-point line on the green painted concrete.
The incarcerated team proved they were the better-conditioned team. SQ Warriors guard Keyshawn “Steez” Strickland went in for an uncontested highlighted dunk that wowed the crowd. The roars of the spectators echoed across the court.
Prison staffer Darius Sutton brought his basketball skills into the prison from his high school experience to assist his team and, not surprisingly, he had some handles on the court. However, he applauded the incarcerated team for simply being more skilled.
“I underestimated the level of intensity they have,” Sutton said. Nevertheless, he looks forward to having his runback one day. “It’s great to bridge that gap and I’m thankful for the run, but I can’t wait to do it all again.”
Music blared through the PA system, piercing through any barrier in its path. Resident DJ Jamaal Harrison and female officers Payton, Lujan, and Rocco cracked jokes and kept the positive vibe flowing through the crowd. The three female officers had no shortage of humor between them.
“You got to get up, to get down,” said one of the officers over the PA system after a prison staffer took a hard fall on the court.
During one of the breaks, Harrison played a song by the singing group Frankie Beverley and Maze.
Ultimately, though basketball was the day’s primary focus, it was the joy and genuine humanity that was shared between staff and the incarcerated that stole the show.
Correctional officers mixed with other staff and the incarcerated on the court and started dancing, sharing smiles, and basking in laughter together.
“This is something different,” Officer U. Obioma said from the sideline where he and many of his colleagues stood observing the event.
“It’s time to change things up,” he noted, about the antiquated prison system.
In the game, the high scorer for the prison staff team was Officer J. Edmond. He fought hard to keep his team in the game. He and Officer B. Gill put down a defensive press trying to stop the fast breaks of Donnie “JR” Pimpton, Taiosis “Shaka” Matangi, and Rob “Bird” Carpenter.
“I feel the change playing against C/Os. Although I played against officers in the past, it’s a little different being in prison playing against them,” Carpenter said.
The staff was playing hard, and Officer E. Weaver’s five rebounds were almost enough to protect their basket. When “Bird” Carpenter blocked the shot of the female staffer V. Hurd, it raised disapproving murmurs from the sidelines. However, the stage was set, and no man or woman was beyond hard defense.
The incarcerated and prison staff shared the job of refereeing the game. Resident J. Brown and Officer S. Finkbohner, geared up in the zebra stripes, were at the receiving end of banter from the incarcerated and staff when they made calls.
“I never would have imagined this 11 years ago,” Officer Finkbohner said. “I am having a good time and glad I did this. I look forward to other stuff. You know pickle ball started this,” Finkbohner said. He was referring to the pickle ball event that happened in the prison in May, when prison staff and residents competed and shared in matches of pickle ball, the current sports craze.
For fans of the “The Q,” it was a turn of events to see SQ Kings Head Coach Freelon not only coach the prison staff, but also bark orders and give directions to people who typically have authority over the incarcerated. He was later given a technical foul for being out on the court.
“My wish is that we can continue these types of events and use what those who came before us and who laid the foundation for things like this to happen as an example for the world to see that people do change and that we are all human beings,” Freelon said.
Warden Oak Smith, a sports enthusiast, watched the game from the sideline with his wife, Michelle. He noted that the event idea came from the incarcerated. In addition, he said that many proposals for other such events are on his desk.
“I had to make sure the staff was taken care of in case anything happened [concerning injuries],” Smith said. “Generally, this is not something we would pay them to do. With the approval from the state secretary to do the things incarcerated individuals request, my job is easy. All I have to do is say yes. Events like this allow us to bring down barriers.”
San Quentin resident Miguel Sifuentes organized the event in hopes of breaking down the walls that exacerbate that “us against them” mentality, a sentiment that he and others shared as well.
“This game is a team effort,” Sifuentes said during halftime in the center court circle about how the event came together. He credited Coach Freelon for naming the event “Bridging the Gap.”
Hundreds of residents came out to watch the unprecedented event, including prison staff who came out to support their brave coworkers who took the initiative to take the step forward toward the overdue changes of the prison system.
Dental assistant Audrey B. and her staff had to remind their incarcerated porter who played in the game to wear a mouth guard to protect his teeth.
“He [Bryant Underwood] was being ridiculed by the commentator about the protective gear he was wearing. It was all in fun though,” Audrey said. “I came out to support both sides, and the game was a lot of fun to watch.”
Officers and prison staff who played in the game switched out their uniforms for green jerseys to take on the incarcerated who wore black jerseys on the concrete court.
“Getting on the court with incarcerated individuals makes no difference,” Officer Gill said about his openness to playing basketball with residents. “Basketball is basketball. [This] is a chance to run with these guys. I am playing a person and whether it is in here or out there, it does not matter.”