Prison seems like an odd place to go to derive a sense of self-satisfaction and purpose. But for Carter Rockwell, San Quentin has been that place - about a half-dozen times.
To be clear, the 32-year-old Rockwell is not and has never been an inmate at San Quentin, a California state maximum security prison in Marin County. The assistant to superintendent Brian Nettz at The Presidio Golf Club in San Francisco, Rockwell has visited San Quentin several times as part of an adult baseball league that gets together a few times a year to face the inmates in a ballgame.
"Satisfaction, that is the main joy of going in there," Rockwell said. "I love playing baseball, but when I think of playing at San Quentin, it's not playing baseball that I remember; it's talking to the guys on the prison team, hearing their story. I don't meet too many people who have been in a penitentiary very often, so I had created this perception of what they were going to be like. When you get in there, they are normal people, and a lot are very regretful for the decisions they have made, and they're just trying to get back on the right path. Playing baseball against us gives them a little taste of normal society, and that means way more to me than whatever I do on the baseball field."
A San Francisco native, Rockwell was a standout baseball player locally at Lowell High School. Since he graduated from high school, he has been active in an adult baseball league called Mission Baseball. With a pool of hundreds of players from middle school to age 60-plus who float in and out of the league based on their availability and interest, the group gets together on Sunday afternoons for pick-up games at public parks throughout the city.
"It's a casual group and everyone just wants to play a good game. There is no one screaming at you about balls and strikes. It's a good group, and we all know each other," he said.
The first thing the guards tell you is 'we don't negotiate for hostages.'
"There is one person who spearheads it for us and gets us a place to play each week. He sends the email out on Thursdays, and invariably about 20 to 30 people show up, and there might be someone who hasn't played in 10 years who just shows up. We've added people to the group who see us playing in the park and just want to know what it's all about. There is a group of guys in their 50s and 60s who have been doing this for 25 years. We now have kids of players playing with us, so it is a generational thing."
A few times a year, a more focused email goes out to Mission Baseball's best players.
The nine players on that list will drive the 30 minutes north on the 101 on a Saturday morning to the infamous San Quentin, which houses nearly 3,800 inmates on 432 acres on San Francisco Bay.
Prison baseball is part of San Quentin's outreach program designed to rehabilitate inmates before releasing them back into society. Activities like competitive baseball and basketball are a reward for those who have logged a great deal of time on good behavior. According to the prison, the program works. San Quentin officials say 98 percent of the inmates who play baseball and are later paroled are never incarcerated again.
The program is currently on Covid-induced hiatus, but Rockwell said he cannot wait to go back once they are permitted.
"The prisoners are so gracious and appreciative of us coming in and playing," Rockwell said. "On top of playing, they get to interact with people from the outside. A lot of the guys I've played against have gotten out. You can tell they are trying to normalize themselves."
Players change into their gear in the parking because the only things they are allowed to bring in are uniforms, bats, balls, gloves and the ID. Don't forget your ID.
Check-in takes about an hour.
The players pass through a series of checkpoints, each requiring ID and a signature.
Passing through the first checkpoint, players are immediately on edge.
"The first thing the guards tell you is 'we don't negotiate for hostages,' " Rockwell said.
The guards are intimidating, going through checkpoints is intimidating. The building is intimidating. It's old and huge and not inviting. But it's not supposed to be.
Finally, at the last checkpoint their hands are stamped with invisible ink.
"Once you get the stamp, the joke is 'don't wash your hands in there,' but it's kind of true," he said. "That is your ticket out!"
Once players leave the last holding cell and the gate closes behind them "at that point, you're in San Quentin," Rockwell said.
"By then, you might as well be another prisoner," he said. "Prisoners are everywhere all over the yard doing what you think prisoners do - push ups with their shirts off, running laps around the field. They're not with any guards and neither are you. Once you walk into the prison yard, you are on your own. That was surreal to me."
Rockwell said his nerves calmed considerably since his first visit on the yard at San Quentin.
"I remember going into the prison the first time and being more nervous than I've ever been," Rockwell said. "I'd played competitive sports all my life, but nothing added up to this.
"It's a long process. You have to get there by 7 o'clock to be on the field by 8 a.m. The guards are intimidating, going through checkpoints is intimidating. The building is intimidating. It's old and huge and not inviting. But it's not supposed to be."
The team's chaperone for the trip is the manager of the prison team, a member of the community who volunteers his time. But the Mission Baseball group never meets him until after he has had a chance to convene with his own team first.
"Prisoners can come up and just start talking to you, they are everywhere, it's very intimidating," Rockwell said. "The prisoners who aren't playing baseball, they don't take as kindly to you because there is nothing in it for them."
As players from both sides take the field, the prison walls almost seem to disappear.
"Once you step foot on the ball field and talk to the prisoners you are playing, all they are are baseball players at that point," Rockwell said. "Baseball is the great equalizer."
Players on the prison team manage the field as best they can without benefit of
seed, chemicals and water. They rake the infield dirt and paint the lines, but the outfield is weedy and rock hard and it's a ground-rule double if a batter hits a ball into a native American sweat lodge in right field that is in the form of a teepee. Suffice to say, the field will never be confused with AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.
The prisoners are so gracious and appreciative of us coming in and playing. On top of playing, they get to interact with people from the outside. A lot of the guys I've played against have gotten out. You can tell they are trying to normalize themselves.
Although the games are for fun, the prison teams are highly competitive.
"It's fun, good-spirited interaction," Rockwell said. "Everybody on the prisoners' team is stoked just because they get to play baseball. It's the one thing many of them have in prison, so they are in a good mood. On top of that, they want to beat you. For them, it is a sense of pride. They've already been stripped of all their pride. They really want to beat you, and there is a lot of shit-talking. But it's good-natured shit-talking. They want to win that game way more than I've ever wanted to win a game."
Competitive indeed. Rockwell's record at San Quentin is a humble 2-4. Still, he looks forward to returning in a post-Covid world and doing what he can to help a few inmates get closer to their freedom.
"I think us going in, and them interacting with us gives them a chance to test their social skills with others," Rockwell said. "That makes it worth it, when you get a chance to talk to them and hear their stories. It's crazy to talk to someone who has killed someone, and they really regret what they did. I can't imagine putting myself in their shoes."
Although he likes the feeling he gets from providing some normalcy for San Quentin's baseball team, he always breathes a sigh of relief when he leaves.
"When the game is over, the teams line up and shake hands," he said. "We mull around with the prisoners and talk with them about whatever. A lot of them thank us for coming to play.
"When we're going out, you remember you have been sweating and sliding in the dirt and you look at your hands and think: That's just invisible ink. I hope that's still there!"