Donated Pickleball Equipment is Changing Lives at This California Prison

Redemption Serve donated $3,500 worth of equipment to Mule Creek State Prison, helping expand the program there and foster better relationships between the incarcerated and staff.

By Stephen Hunt - Red Line Editorial

California’s Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) started a pickleball program in March 2023, and over Labor Day Weekend, the facility hosted its first tournament.

The event was so successful that MCSP wanted to start a league. However, with so much pickleball being played there, the prison faced an equipment shortage, down to its last four wooden paddles and final three wiffle balls.

Up stepped Redemption Serve, an organization focused on building relationships between outside communities and the incarcerated through pickleball, which donated $3,500 worth of equipment in September 2023.

The dividends were immediate.

The donated equipment has resulted in more participants in MCSP’s pickleball program, which is spearheaded by “Nemo,” an incarcerated person known as the pickleball commissioner. Nemo collaborates with Andrew Scholl, MCSP’s recreation coordinator, to organize new pickleball events. The new equipment has allowed MCSP to offer more leagues and tournaments, which in turn has helped foster better relationships between the incarcerated and the staff.

“This simple act of kindness has injected another level of enthusiasm,” said “Cameron,” an inmate at MCSP. “We can’t believe people cared enough about us to donate pickleball equipment. This kindness from all those involved really makes a difference. We will use the equipment most enthusiastically.”

Leading Redemption Serve is Mimi Loucks, a former collegiate and professional tennis player. Loucks recently retired as a teaching professional at Balboa Tennis Club in San Diego and started playing pickleball. She’d also discovered an unrealized passion. 

“Over the past three years, I have been diving into criminal justice reform,” she said. “I got into the Prison Journalism Project (which empowers incarcerated journalists to have a voice in criminal justice reform) and became aware of a community, the prison community. Seeing the injustices that this community faces, it brought out a passion in me I never even knew I had.

“There can’t be change unless we can bring awareness to what is happening in there, and also being able to rehabilitate these people will prepare them when they are released back to society. There are so many things it gets me passionate about, like being able to change society, the world and so many lives.”

To make an impact, Loucks asked contacts from the tennis community now playing pickleball if they would be interested in donating equipment. Their response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.

“It was so heartwarming. I only asked two contacts involved in pickleball,” she said. “They were like, ‘What can we do? I had no idea this was happening on the inside.’

“That’s the type of reaction I’m looking for, for people to know what’s happening and know they want to help make a change. It’s such an easy thing to do, to donate and show them (the incarcerated) they’re loved.”

Loucks has witnessed firsthand the transformative power of pickleball at MCSP, where the sport is one part of the Norwegian model of rehabilitation adopted by the California Department of Corrections, which aims to emphasize rehabilitation and treat inmates with dignity.

“The feedback I’ve received is they can control their shots and have more feel (with the new paddles),” Loucks said. “Since I have a tennis background, it’s like playing with a wood racquet and trying to play with that type of paddle now. Now that they have the up-to-date technology of paddles, it’s really elevated their game. They’re really into it.”

But what makes pickleball such an ideal vehicle for positive social change? Well, the same reasons why the sport appeals to so many. 

“Because of my tennis background, it was an easy transition. Pickleball is an easy sport to pick up,” Loucks said. “There are many benefits of the sport. (It appeals to players) at any skill level, socioeconomic level, pickleball can bring in so many more people to play than a lot of other sports, and it’s so social.”

Loucks sees MCSP as being only the first of many prisons where Redemption Serve can donate pickleball equipment and continue having a huge positive impact on the incarcerated. In January 2024, she and several others plan to hold a pickleball clinic at MCSP, an experience she eagerly looks forward to.

“When I get up there with my team, we’re going to impact hundreds of those men there,” she said. “After a couple of hours with us, they’ll be able to know the basics and play on their own. That’s just amazing. That’s why it (pickleball) is growing so much.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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