Tennis is a complex rehabilitative sport. You have to return the ball that is served. But, there are hundreds of ways to hit the ball, and there are a thousand places it could land. For an incarcerated father, it’s a metaphor for life.
Paris Williams could only live the life he was dealt. As a Creole man and father of a bi-racial daughter, he dealt with racism from her family. As a CDCR prisoner sentenced to 75 years to life, he deals with years of anguish.
Williams was struck out under California’s Three Strike Law for his third burglary case.
Playing for the Inside Tennis Team at San Quentin helps him to stay positive.
“Tennis changed my outlook on life. I learned to humble myself, because on the court there is no racism,” Williams said. “I learned to socialize because as an outlaw, you don’t socialize, you live like a chameleon.”
On Fridays, he cleans the court, because every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. they match racquets against members of the surrounding communities, who enter the prison to partake in the sport and share what they’ve learned as tennis players.
“I come in to help guys,” said team co-coordinator and volunteer Sharon S., who does not come inside from a social justice perspective. She believes there are programs for that, but says she does help people change the way they think.
“When I play with inmates, I give them pointers because some of them don’t play teams as well and working as a team is what tennis is,” she said. “It’s about camaraderie and boosting up your partner.”
First-time volunteer Beth C. said, “Anytime I want to get better at something, it’s easier said than done. I have to reach in for patience, humility and acceptance of myself.”
“Tennis is mental; anytime I’m focused on what other people think of my game, I’m distracted.”
Like Beth C., Williams has had a humbling experience playing tennis. It’s hard for him to focus on rehabilitation when he’s thinking of how his decision to commit crimes caused him to miss the greater half of his daughter’s life.
His daughter holds resentment toward him for going back and forth to prison. They were estranged before he was struck out on his current term.
Three years ago, she explained in a letter that she did not mean to push him away from her, but wished he wouldn’t have given up on her either. It was the last time he heard from her.
“She told me, ‘don’t think I don’t love you.’ She said she loves me and thinks of me all the time, but she’s dealing with life,” Williams said.
He has been at San Quentin for more than three years and started coming out to play tennis two years ago for the rehabilitative aspect. In Williams’ transition from crime rackets to tennis racquets, he learned cross match tennis and became more comfortable with socializing by talking to volunteers who come inside to play.
Fanny Gamble, a member of Harbor Point Tennis Club, said, “All the tools and blessings I got from tennis I apply to life, like taking one point at a time, think ahead, stay positive, strategize, have a plan, and don’t forget to smile, because it’s supposed to be fun.”
Gamble has been player of the year for her age group, and she represented the U.S. at the world cup last April in South Africa.
Williams said that being in prison with a life sentence often puts a frown on things.
He stresses over the pain he caused his daughter and the disappointment as a father who repeatedly came back and forth to prison. The disappointment with himself had been his trigger to give up on the idea of being a socially polite person. On the verge of quitting on April 14, he talked to volunteer Marty Silverman about it, because his desire to quit was triggered by depression.
“Today I’ve concluded walking away is not an option,” Williams said.