The school of thought in which convicts are bad people not to be “coddled” in any way has led to a swelling U.S. prison population for whom by some estimates less than 1% of incarceration costs go toward any kinds of rehabilitation. This would appear counterproductive, as the majority of prisoners do return to the streets — and it very much benefits society that they arrive there well-prepared for law-abiding civilian life.
Michael Tolajian’s “Q Ball,” a look at San Quentin’s basketball team, throws a spotlight on a seemingly frivolous program that nonetheless provides inmates with considerable positive focus, improved social skills and other benefits that might ultimately reduce recidivism. This highly polished and engaging documentary, which premiered at SFFilm, will be released May 17 in Los Angeles and May 24 in New York before it debuts on Fox Sports’ “Magnify” series May 28.
Located 20 miles north of San Francisco, California’s oldest prison was designed as a maximum-security facility, and is where all the state’s death row prisoners are housed. But the general population (a majority among the approximately 4,400 total inmates) will duly leave its grounds one day, and they have access to a range of rehabilitation programs — including job training and psychological adjustment — far greater than those available at most prisons. The flagship of its athletic options is the basketball team, supported by the NBA’s Golden State Warriors (whose Kevin Durant is an executive producer on this film).
This is no idle pastime: Many on the almost entirely African American squad might have potentially turned pro had their lives gone in a different direction. Still holding onto that hope is Harry “ATL” Smith, whose dream is to be “the first convicted felon to suit up in an NBA jersey” after his release in six months. Though rather old, at 31, to be a draftee, he certainly has the chops, getting dubbed “the Lebron James of this yard.” And unlike most teammates, he once had a real shot, with a comfortable middle-class upbringing that led to a college athletic scholarship. But the firing of his mentor/coach and a self-destructive streak instead drove him eventually to the “Q.”
Other San Quentin Warriors have more hard-scrabble backstories — involving drug-addicted parents, gang membership and compulsive violence. (One, however, is serving the equivalent of a murderer’s sentence for non-violent crimes under the now-discredited “three strikes” law.) And while he seems impressively even-tempered (and sincerely repentant), team coach Rafael Cuevas admits he had no impulse-control 15 years ago when he notoriously stabbed to death a fellow sports fan who’d banged on his car window in the parking lot outside a San Francisco Giants baseball game.
The discipline and camaraderie of basketball is clearly a huge plus for these men, although some have also undergone a religious transformation behind bars. As Smith’s release date approaches, he hopes his emotional nature won’t inhibit his chances in the outside world — in particular, an opportunity for a relationship with the daughter he’s never met.
But the film’s payoff is the “Q” Warriors’ annual game with the “real” Warriors — not the actual pro players, it turns out, but volunteers from among Golden State’s coaches and front-office staff, who turn out to have some pretty serious skills themselves. “Q Ball” is very well put-together, and the slow-mo capture of plays here is as vivid and lyrical as sports photography gets.
If anything, Tolajian’s slick film actually feels a little overpackaged at the end, when the glut of inspirational montages that strike an appropriate climactic note remind us how many issues the documentary hasn’t addressed. Institutional access was presumably limited. Still, “Q Ball” might have strayed from the court a bit more to afford greater insight into its protagonists’ general existence behind bars. Do they work? Study? How factionalized is the prison population, or the team itself? At the start, a practice is interrupted by a violent fight (not between players) that breaks out nearby, an incident to which the movie later returns but leaves unexplained. Is such violence a frequent hazard? The film doesn’t raise such questions, let alone answer them.
Still, within its bounds, “Q Ball” offers proof that rehabilitative programs like this one offer more than just a chance for prisoners to show athletic excellence; they also provide an opportunity for individual growth. Its slam-dunk message is that such low-cost projects should be encouraged at every long-term lockup in the land.