Sportswriter Janie McCauley and photographer Godofredo Vásquez gained exclusive access to a tennis program in California’s San Quentin State Prison, producing a distinctive enterprise piece on sports behind bars.
The story grew from a tweet, after Bay Area sports writer Janie McCauley posted a message in May saying that she had been invited to play tennis with inmates at San Quentin. Global Sports Editor Ricardo Zuniga saw the tweet and reached out to her: Let's see what we can do this access.
McCauley, a former college tennis player, requested authorization from the prison authorities to write about the program, which pairs inmates with a player from the outside community. After a postponement for a COVID outbreak at the prison, she and San Francisco photographer Vásquez were allowed into California’s oldest prison on Aug. 13 — McCauley as a player and reporter, and Vásquez to capture images of the program and the inmates’ stories.
The pair also made a second reporting trip, the result a heartfelt account of a sports program seeking to build a stronger sense of community among inmates, as well as the connections they forge with players from the outside the prison thanks to their shared love of the sport.
McCauley worked closely with editor Erica Hunzinger to craft a narrative that highlighted the deeply personal elements of the story, bringing the reader into the rarely seen space behind the walls of one of the most notorious penal institutions in America. Vásquez's images also captured the essence of the program, including those revealing moments when a player showed exhilaration or frustration over a point won or lost, all amid the unique setting.
Hunziger further elevated the storytelling with her edit, and executed a strong social media plan promoting the piece. She also worked with digital storyteller Samantha Shotzbarger on a custom presentation with stacked photos, showcasing Vázquez's expressive images.
The engaging story was used by news outlets large and small across the country, drawing strong readership.