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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.

Orlando “Duck” Harris was finally found suitable for parole on Feb. 2, 2021 after serving 38 years in prison. He credits the tennis program for his rehabilitation and changing him into a better person.

He was previously denied parole four times, and the impact of those denials had slowly diminished him.

“I felt that I wasn’t being heard. I felt that I wasn’t being seen,” said Harris. “To finally get found suitable by the panel, I felt that they finally saw the authentic me, a person who had done the work. It felt good.”

Harris did the work by completing other self-help programs such as Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training (TRUST), Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) and Community Re-entry Institut (CRI).

He also completed his GED and got his associate degree in 2016. With support from his mom and his long-term female partner at his side, Harris pressed on to strive for his betterment.

He joined the tennis club in 2010. He loved the game so much and stuck with it until he eventually rose to become the club’s commissioner.

“Tennis rehabilitated me totally,” said Harris. “For me it was being able to show some outside people the true and authentic side of me that helped me a lot. Being able to share my story with some people who don’t know me and who saw me as more than just my crime made me feel like I was a person.”

The SQ tennis club allows residents to play against retired tennis stars like the twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan as well as retired community leaders.

“It took me out of the element of prison,” Harris said. “It gave me a sense of normalcy — being able to compete against some regular people.”

When COVID-19 hit the prison and halted the program, Harris said he was traumatized. He missed the communal aspect and the socialization of tennis.

“It was hard on me. I was worried about the outsiders and wondering was they OK. I couldn’t exercise or use my arms as much either,” said Harris.

He injured his rotator cup trying to assist with the serving of food to the residents during the lockdown.

Now that the program is back, Harris is ecstatic that he can finally play again.

“Although I can’t get out there and play like I used to due to my injury, I still get out there and practice with the fellas,” he said.

Now that Harris is leaving, he fears for the integrity of the program and who will be the new representation of the men in blue. Some of the qualities Harris looks for from the guys in the tennis club are transparency and honesty with the volunteers, being respectful, and having integrity. 

“We’re very picky about the guys we allow in the club,” said Harris. “But to me what’s more important is the attitudes a person might have. Attitude is the key. You gotta have a high level of a good attitude.”

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.

Timothy Hicks is a staff writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.