The pickleball event on May 5 set a historic precedent for San Quentin. Not only did Oak Smith, the acting warden at the time, bring a new sport to The Q, he actually joined in to play the game with residents.
This was likely the first time ever that a warden has joined in to play a sport with the incarcerated at California’s oldest prison, marking a sign of the times.
“It’s good to see outside people that care come have fun with us,” said resident Joseph Thompson, a pickleball veteran. He said it was mind blowing to see the warden of a prison compete with incarcerated people, and to actually be enjoying the game as much as Smith.
Hardly anybody recognized Smith as he stood on the court ready to play some pickleball. Instead of wearing his usual full staff uniform and hat, Smith came out looking like a professional pickleball player in red, white and blue color-coordinated athletic gear, complete with a matching headband and tennis shoes.
While the equipment was set up, Smith stood on the court, arms folded, shifting a toothpick in the side of his mouth as if he was sizing up the competition. When he started playing, he was crushing it with maximum effort, sacrificing his body for his team.
“No guts, no glory!” Smith said after sustaining an injury on the court diving for a ball.
Pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport, according to Roger BelAir, one of the sport’s biggest enthusiasts. Smith arranged for BelAir to come into The Q to teach the pickleball workshop. After greeting BelAir and making small talk with staff and residents, Smith was quickly picked as a teammate by a resident for the two-on-two matches.
Because of the Smith’s initiative to bring pickleball to The Q, residents and staff alike were able to get outside for some fun physical activity together. Importantly, everyone who participated enjoyed the camaraderie formed between residents and staff. During those two-and-half hours, the wall was let down between the blue and the green.
“This is good and fun,” said Dr. Alison Pachynski, SQ’s chief medical executive. “But none of this would have happened without the blessing of Warden Smith and without Roger BelAir coming in and teaching us the game.”
Another element to the historic day happened when Smith teamed up with SQ’s current warden, Ron Broomfield, for whom Smith was filling in as acting warden while Broomfield was on a special assignment in Sacramento. The two wardens went 3-for-3 in their matches, taking on any and all challengers.
Everyone present got into the craze of pickleball, although perhaps no one with more enthusiasm than Smith. Even after many dramatic plays and sustaining an injury, he never once lost his toothpick or his cool, and in the process, he helped to show everyone what humanity in prison looks like.