Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Last week Sports Illustrated explored the “rehabilitative power of sports” with a piece on the tennis program at California’s San Quentin State Prison.The piece is a first-person account of a trip Marc Howard took to the prison to play against a few inmates.
Howard isn’t a typical SI writer. He’s a government professor at Georgetown and a former playing partner of Ivan Lendl.
So yeah, he’s qualified.
His account is typical of sports-in-prison stories. He points out the apparent contradiction in playing a game in an environment designed to punish. He makes it clear that the sport itself is secondary to the values it imparts. And at one point he sits down with an inmate or two and realises, “We were just interacting as humans and tennis players.”
But even if Howard’s portrait is a little familiar, his piece raises an interesting question:
Should prisoners be allowed to play tennis?
Many of the guys Howard plays with are violent criminals. People who’ve done unspeakable things.
Our retributive instinct is to deny them recreation. To restrict their rights down to the bare minimum as a self-satisfying act of vengeance.
What kind of message does it send if we allow the most hardened criminals to play TENNIS of all things? Tennis is a sport of affluence and dignity. Playing the game carries an expectation of respect in a way that basketball or baseball do not.
So why let murderers play while their victims cannot?
That primitive craving for revenge and punishment makes us want to snap the racket out of the prisoner’s hands, lock ’em up and throw away the key.
But punishment is not the only purpose of the prison system.
Even though they’ve gone away from it in recent decades, prisons have an obligation to rehabilitate.
This is for our sake – Society is much safer when ex-cons don’t revert to lives of crime – and or the inmate’s sakes — many of them are victims of class, race, gender, and geography, and they deserve the right to transcend their circumstances and choose to do good.
So even though the San Quentin tennis program feels to many like too much of a luxury for crooks, California has an obligation to continue it if it succeeds to rehabilitating prisoners.
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