SAN QUENTIN STAFF AND INCARCERATED TEAM UP AND PAIR
OFF TO COMPETE IN AMERICA’S FASTEST-GROWING SPORT
On May 5, San Quentin residents and staff competed in some fun and fierce two-on-two pickleball matches. The pickleball event may have been the first time that incarcerated residents and prison staff at The Q played a sport together.
While pickleball is a not a new sport, it is sweeping the nation like a storm as the latest and greatest sports phenomenon. Thanks to a man named Roger BelAir, the fun and easy-to-play sport is also sweeping through prisons across the country.
Over the last several years, BelAir has traveled the country with the goal of introducing pickleball to prisoners and prison staff alike. In his opinion, playing pickleball promotes positive social interactions and can contribute to rehabilitation.
“Something like 95% of people are eventually released from prison. If we can make them better people on the inside, it’s better for all of us once they get back outside. Today’s inmate will be tomorrow’s neighbor,” BelAir said while standing in the middle of the basketball court on the Lower Yard in his all-black sweat suit and cap.
BelAir, elderly yet full of vigor, stood in a circle of gathered staff and incarcerated spectators, who listened to his words. After instructing the crowd on the rules of the game, BelAir reminded everyone of the four fundamentals of the game.
“One, you must serve underhand. Two, remember the two-bounce rule. Three, stay out of the kitchen. And lastly, give each other a group hug,” said BelAir. The kitchen, he explained, is the forecourt area closest to the net.
The pickleball event commandeered the basketball court, canceling the day’s scheduled basketball games. However, resident athletes who would normally focus on other sports happily joined in for the fun of playing the new game.
The atmosphere at the event was festive. SQ’s Sports Program Coordinator, Coach K. Bhatt, brought out the speaker box and microphone, while resident Jamaal Harrison provided the soundtrack for the games with his selection of new school and old school music.
Staff and incarcerated people mingled on the sidelines while watching the games, rooting for their friends or coworkers. Ping-Pong style paddles smacked the whiffle ball–style plastic balls across court, making a thudding sound that is loud enough to wake up the neighbors.
Acting Warden Oak Smith got in on the action and paired up with an incarcerated resident as his first partner. Together they battled two other residents for pickleball bragging rights.
“Dreams do come true! As a lifer, I never thought I’d be in San Quentin playing pickleball with the warden,” said resident Jesse Milo, who had only been at The Q for three weeks.
Smith and his incarcerated partner got the victory at the end of their 15-minute match, yet he hadn’t even broken a sweat. Smith later paired up with Ron Broomfield, who showed up for the event. Broomfield had been temporarily reassigned to Sacramento from his post as the warden of San Quentin. The two went 3-3 in their matches.
For the pickleball event, Smith left his full uniform and cap behind in favor of matching red, white and blue shirt, shorts and headband. Many residents appreciated the warden’s swag, complete with a toothpick that hung on the side of his mouth.
While he was playing, he had supporters among the staff and the incarcerated cheering him on. His competitive spirit brought out the loudest cheer of the day when he dove for a ball.
Chief Medical Executive Dr. Alison Pachynski, who was already a pickleball enthusiast, said the game is not only fun; it is beneficial too.
“It’s good for the cardiovascular, it’s good for getting in some vitamin D, and it’s just easy entry,” she said. Pachynski said the intention for introducing the game into San Quentin is “to bring people together. The goal is to have all the staff learn, because it is my dream to get people trained for a tournament — staff and residents — because anybody can play the game.”
Pachynski said she had dreamed of pickleball coming into the prison for a few years, but it wasn’t until Smith found an old letter from BelAir that was lost in the shuffle that the dream started to become a reality.
“We want the prison environment to reflect the environment of the outside as much as possible,” Smith said. “Sports in prison are important for health and for teambuilding, and we’re excited to have a new avenue to do that. Pickleball is easy for all ages and abilities.”
Many of the prison’s staffers enjoyed themselves at the event, teaming up with residents and coworkers alike.
Chief Psychiatrist Paul Burton teamed up with Rachel Chin, chief of mental health. The two agreed that humanizing experiences such as playing pickleball with the incarcerated will help get people ready for reintegration back into their communities. They said it is a sign that society is moving in the right direction.
Resident Jarrod Williams, who previously learned the game at another prison that BelAir had visited, agreed with the sentiment.
“It’s crazy how something so small can be bigger than everybody else. It’s not about me, it’s about the community and the camaraderie,” said Williams, who with his pickleball partner Joseph Thompson, went undefeated for the day.
Dental manager Tanya Woodson said she had never played the game before, but since she had enjoyed playing tennis and Ping-Pong, she thought it might be fun to try out pickle.
Once Woodson and some of her co-workers got into the swing of the game, they had so much fun that they did not stop until it was time for BelAir and his crew to pack up and leave.
“Pickleball brings people together and it makes everybody smile,” Woodson said.
After the event, BelAir generously donated all of the equipment to the prison to help jumpstart its pickleball program