People don’t expect a warm welcome when they come to prison. But that’s exactly what the Special Olympic athletes who came to compete in an exhibition softball tournament got at the Sierra Conservation Center.
The inmates at the men’s state prison just outside of Jamestown welcomed a group of about 30 athletes, coaches and family members with the Tuolumne County Special Olympics on Saturday. The fundraising event was proposed, planned and produced by the inmates as part of one of the prison’s rehabilitation programs. Everything, down to the hand-written welcome signs and freshly chalked ballfield, was done by the prisoners.
“This is part of our amends and a way of giving back,” said inmate Ralph Contreras, the project manager of the event. “It’s also finding skills we had within ourselves that we never realized we had.”
A team of inmates in the prison’s New Professionals career development group created and organized the event over the past year. While Special Olympics Northern California and Sierra Conservation Center had partnered on other benefits over the years, most had been with the prison staff. This was the first time the nonprofit group, which provides athletic outlets to children and adults with intellectual disabilities, has worked directly with the inmates themselves.
But not only did the inmates in the minimum-to-medium security prison work with the special athletes, they cheered, encouraged and high-fived them. While they were meant to be rivals on the field, the 40 inmates who made up the home teams and and the more than 100 others who volunteered for the event were clearly rooting for the visitors. The friendly games were less a fierce competition and more a generous goodwill gesture.
“We all need courage to face our challenges — to say I have value and am capable,” said Edward Quintanilla, one of the inmate announcers and color commentators for the game. “It took a lot of courage for the Special Olympic athletes to come to prison today and participate. And it took a lot of courage for inmates to step out of their comfort zones and volunteer.”
The inmates also raised more than $1,200 for Special Olympics through business sponsors and community donations. The prisoners themselves donated $500 to the cause, money earned while working at the prison’s 8-to-32-cents an hour on-site jobs.
The exhibition game was a first for Special Olympics of Northern California, said Director of Volunteers Judy Burton-Andrews, who came to observe and cheer on the teams. While she said she wasn’t sure what to expect from the day, the hearty welcome and good spirits of everyone involved were moving to see.
“I think the athletes need to realize that everyone has their problems — some of them are by choices they’ve made and some of them are not,” she said. “And you can see the inmates are having so much fun with these athletes. They have a heart and this is the best way to show it.”
The Sierra Conservation Center houses some 2,500 inmates in three separate yards by security level. The Special Olympics athletes were in the Level III yard, the highest security inmates which includes people serving life sentences. But all the prisoners who participated in the event were cleared and vetted by security.
The New Professionals program is one of more than 40 rehabilitation groups that are held at the prison, according to the prison’s Community Resources Manager Dameion Renault. Close to 20 of those groups — everything from Anger Management to Narcotics Anonymous and Arts In Corrections — were represented at the exhibition game with members carrying banners during a mock parade of nations before the games began. The opening ceremonies also included an abbreviated torch run and lighting of the prisoner-made “cauldron” — complete with plywood flames.
While some of the Special Olympics team members said they were nervous to go to prison at first, the team’s coach and Tuolumne County Special Olympics Area Director Dave DeCheney said that trepidation melted away despite the 14-foot razor-wire fences that surrounded them. And then it was just another day on the ballfield — albeit a very good day.
“They are experiencing how they can change their lives,” said Sonora resident and Special Olympics athlete Timmy Robertson, 20. “I’m proud of the other people, they did all this good stuff for us.”