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Photo by Phoeun You, courtesy of San Quentin News

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

After a year of suffering through the deadliest outbreak of disease in history, the sun is finally shining for San Quentin sports. The exercise yard is full of vaccinated people, and sports was resurrected at San Quentin State Prison on the third Saturday in May 2021.

“It feels good to get out to play basketball, to be able to exercise and see some of the guys I haven’t seen in a while,” said Demond Lewis aka “Oola”, as he dribbled the basketball. Lewis struggled to get his body to do some of the complex moves he hasn’t done in a while.

There was a flurry of excitement as men from every sport checked out sports equipment, including the scoreboard for basketball. The sidelines were littered with old friends and acquaintances who were passing balls around and sharing stories of both death and survival.

Some incarcerated people hadn’t changed a bit, but others looked rail thin with hollowed-out eyes, and others were clearly over the weight they were a year ago. Many were complaining of breathing difficulties, memory problems and fatigue. But some felt better after accepting the Moderna vaccine.

“Not being out on the baseball field this past year was torture,” said Brandon Terrell who agreed to taking the vaccine. “For me baseball is therapy.”

Before the pandemic Terrell spent most of his time on the baseball field glove in hand practicing the game. For almost a year the San Quentin exercise yard had been shut-down and its baseball field of dreams had been turned into a nightmarish medical triage center lined with tents. San Quentin, or the “Q” as it is often called, became ground zero for a disease that traveled all the way from Wuhan, China, sickened thousands and left 28 incarcerated people and one correctional sergeant dead.

As the deadly coronavirus plague stalked its victims throughout the “Q,” the basketball, handball, baseball, soccer field, and tennis courts were left silent and the running track was left deserted.

“It wasn’t the same,” said soccer player Juan Ramirez, as he bounced a soccer ball on his knee. “It felt like you were missing something and you couldn’t find it.”

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, incarcerated people were kept confined to their small cramped cells for 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Muscles were deteriorating, waistlines were expanding, cholesterol, blood pressure, stress, and anxiety levels were rising higher and higher.

After the outbreak cooled, the men began to get limited outdoor time without sports.

“This past year was the toughest of my incarceration physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” said member of San Quentin’s tennis club Robert Barnes. “My inability to swing my tennis racket, participate in self-help groups and go to church kept me full of stress and anxiety.”

Besides the psychological toll, many of the athletes said they suffered from a general feeling of malaise from sitting around and not getting enough sun. The concrete and steel of the prison cell sucked the life from their bodies slowly.

The floor in the cell isn’t big enough to pace so all the athletes can do is sit or lay in their bunk until it hurts.

“When I wasn’t able to run it felt like I had just gotten arrested and lost my freedom all over again,” said Tommy Wickerd, president of the 1,000 Mile Club.

Wickerd is used to clocking a thousand miles a year on the track. He caught COVID-19 and suffered some fatigue, depression, memory loss, while gaining weight. He is now on pace to make a full recovery.

Having sports back at San Quentin is not just about dunking basketballs or hearing the sounds of bats cracking as people hit home runs. It is about boosting morale, rebuilding communities, and giving human beings the much needed exercise to finish the healing process after experiencing such a devastating disease.

Sports can help restore hope, purpose, and resilience here at the “Q”. It is much needed. And sports help people deal with the roughest of times.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.