San Quentin inmates hold serve

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- A neatly trimmed mustache lines James "Mac" McCartney's lip. At 57, his bald head is speckled with swaths of silver hair. With his soft-spoken demeanor, McCartney could be the typical guy next door, if not for his past. He is serving 25 years to life at San Quentin State Prison for brutally murdering his ex-wife.

"Mac," as he's known, is one of more than 5,300 inmates at San Quentin. Hundreds of heavily tattooed men fill the yard each day, occupying every end of the segregated grounds. In the middle of this place is a rectangular, green oasis bordered by white lines that, in a way, has become a form of escapism, temporarily freeing the men from their demons.

Yes, there's a tennis court at San Quentin State Prison, inside the 150-year-old granite walls adorned with armed guards.

"It teaches you patience; it teaches you tolerance," McCartney says. "There are rules in tennis which you have to abide by if you're going to win."

The oldest state prison in California, San Quentin offers a variety of athletic activities to inmates like McCartney who demonstrate good behavior. But the tennis program stands out.

When McCartney arrived in 1979, there was no tennis. Inmates occasionally hit balls across a chicken-wire fence, but the jagged asphalt sent balls bouncing in every direction. That changed when Don DeNevi became recreation director in 2000.

A lifelong tennis enthusiast, he sought to share his love of the game. With the help of private donations -- about $20,000 -- and a grant from the United States Tennis Association, a vacant piece of the yard was paved for a court. McCartney led a group of inmates who built a fence out of scrap metal from the industries workshop at the prison. They hoisted a net.

At first it was inmate versus inmate. But DeNevi had an idea, and invited fellow members -- men and women -- from the Marin Tennis Club, located in the affluent Marin County 15 miles north of San Francisco, to come to San Quentin to play with the inmates. The inmates play with donated racquets and old tennis balls from the Marin Tennis Club that the members bring with them. And DeNevi says he gets about 80 cents a year, per inmate, for recreational supplies.

The inmates can play every day among themselves. They play with the Marin members for a few hours on Saturdays from March through October. In a society where inmates are identified according to their crimes, men and women from the outside now call them teammates.

"The whole prison setting [fades away], and everything that goes with it," McCartney says. "All of the drama that goes on every day, the walls, just everything. For those two hours that they're here and they're on the tennis court and we're playing tennis -- that's it, we're there playing tennis."

Rose Prado, 48, was one of the first to sign up. A pleasant, petite woman with well-defined arms and a daily tennis regimen, Prado figured this would be an opportunity like no other.

"If you're afraid of something, you should deal with it," Prado says. "So I thought well, this is an opportunity for me to see what my perception is of ugly, criminal elements that I don't live in. I live in a very nice area, and it's a society that is very sheltered from the criminal element."

Prado's family and friends weren't happy, questioning her desire to help men who had hurt others. And she was slightly worried about her safety. But as soon as she stepped onto the court, all of those concerns vanished.

"I think a lot of people want to see some of these men executed. They don't want them having any joy of any sort. And I understand that," she says. "But some of these men will be released into our society again."

Prado said the inmates were "very gracious, very kind."

"That's hard for people to hear," she says. "But they were all gentlemen. They had better court manners than some of the men I have seen at private clubs."

There are 19 inmates who play, and several say they appreciate the time that the handful of tennis club members spends with them. The inmates know they're men whom society would like to forget.

"I want to ask them why they came in in the first place," McCartney says. "And then I say to myself, 'It's really not necessary for me to know that.' The fact that they're willing to come in and share their time with us, share their experiences with us, allow us to understand that there is still a life outside these walls. And for those two hours we can be treated as an equal, that's a blessing."

DeNevi says tennis has helped transform the men, teaching them about strategy, sportsmanship and how to make wrongs right.

"I have seen more honesty among those guys than I have the college presidents I have worked for," DeNevi says. "The integrity is phenomenal. I have never seen anybody ever cheat; they settle [line calls] instantly; there is never any question."

Alexa Pozniak is a feature producer for ESPN. She can be reached at alexa.pozniak@espn.com.