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Tennis is serious sport in San Quentin Prison

About 20 inmates — lifers and 'three strikers' — play for the Inside Tennis Team, created by recreation director Don DeNevi, 72. Competition comes from outsiders. The only rule: Resolve all arguments on the court.

May 13, 2010|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times

This will be a cakewalk, I tell myself, even though I'm up against a pair of convicted killers.

I toss a tennis ball and swing, a familiar feeling. Years ago I was pretty good, but I don't play much anymore. The guys on the other side, two members of a squad called the Inside Tennis Team, do.

This is tennis behind the broad, looming walls of San Quentin.

We're on a forlorn court lined by a fence low enough to let bullets fly in from a nearby watchtower, should the need arise. The spectators are a handful of guards and a few dozen inmates. Many are serving life sentences, including Chris Schuhmacher and Nguyenly Nguyen, staring at me across the net.

Schuhmacher has spent the last 10 years behind bars. "I ended up taking a guy out," he says. "A drug deal gone bad." Nguyen, an accomplice in a killing over a girlfriend, has been in prison 18 years.

"Let's beat the living daylights out of these guys," says my partner, Don DeNevi. He isn't a convict. Seventy-two years old, tall, lean and slightly stooped, he is the director of recreation at San Quentin. It was his idea to build this court and form the squad that for the last six years has played almost every day, "barring swine flu outbreaks or lockdowns," as one of them notes.

I figure I shouldn't play too hard. A gentleman doesn't try to squash an overmatched opponent. Besides, it's not easy to concentrate; I have agreed not to be considered a hostage in the event of a prison takeover. The court is in the middle of the main yard, which bustles with men — whites in one corner, Latinos in another, Asians in another, blacks in still another.

To the uninitiated, it does not seem tense. But if one guy disrespects another — spits in the wrong direction, hangs a hard look at the wrong face — mayhem could arrive in a flash.

DeNevi is immune to it. He comes to San Quentin six days a week, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. and starting his shift before daybreak.

He believes tennis can help these men. He tells them to give everything they've got. In victory, don't gloat (well, not too much; DeNevi has a wiseacre's habit of talking trash when he wins). In defeat, bottle the disappointment and anger.

My serve comes back as a low flutter. DeNevi twists his stiff back and uncorks a volley. His ball flies on a flat line straight between the two convicts.

He smiles. He pumps a fist. The match is on.

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"I'm addicted to San Quentin," DeNevi says. "To the rush you feel when you hear those iron doors clanking behind you when you go in. Hell, I'm probably going to die right here, on the court, after hitting a serve to an inmate. It would be fitting. Prisons and the people in them have been such a big part of my life."

He was born in Stockton, where his father ran a hardware store and his mother was a homemaker. "I was a straight A-student who never got in trouble," he says. "But I was always intrigued with the rougher crowd."

At 14, he saw "My Six Convicts," a Stanley Kramer movie filmed in San Quentin. It told the story of a prison psychologist who stubbornly believes he can rehabilitate the worst inmates. DeNevi was amazed by the premise — that prisoners are redeemable — and fascinated by the way they think.

"The criminal mind is so much the opposite of how I looked at things," he says, peering intently through large eyeglasses. "I wanted to know: Why did some people think that way? Could they really change?"

In the late 1950s, interning as a teacher at a prison near Stockton, he thought he could alter the thinking of a group of white supremacists by showing them unedited footage of Nazi gas chambers. "They howled with laughter through the whole film," he says. "It was the worst failure of my life. But I learned a lesson: Some people cannot be helped. They are simply too far gone."

By the early '70s, with a PhD in education from UC Berkeley, DeNevi was teaching at Bay Area colleges. Eventually, he focused on the psychology of illegal behavior. He taught Criminal Profiling; Organized Crime in America; Classic Crime Cinema; and, from a Freudian perspective, Understanding the Criminal Mind.

When he wasn't in the classroom, he was writing books, 36 in all, many of them mirroring his course work.

In 2001, he took the job at San Quentin rather than go into retirement. DeNevi considered it "the crown jewel of all prisons." Irrepressible, he talks like a machine gun when he gets worked up. "You bet I wanted to be here! Who wouldn't?"

Organizing ways for inmates to work off steam has a long history at the 158-year-old prison. "It's vital to what we do," says Vince Cullen, San Quentin's warden, who views recreation as a way to ease prison tension while affording convicts "the opportunity to learn how to behave civilly" in difficult situations. Along with a baseball diamond, the main yard has several sets of pull-up bars, a punching bag, a zigzag path used as a track and a basketball court.

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