San Quentin chess event unites prisoners, guards to transform lives

Prison inmates, staff and community members participate in the "Pawns to Progress" chess event at San Quentin Rehabilitation Center on March 5, 2024. The event, which was hosted by San Quentin SkunkWorks, the California Department of Corrections and

Prisoners and guards at San Quentin faced off and partnered up recently to play games of chess in the facility’s gymnasium. The goal was to have incarcerated people and staff members engage with each other as part of the ongoing effort to convert the 171-year-old state prison into a rehabilitation center.

The event, dubbed "Pawns to Progress," was sponsored by Mechanics’ Institute — a San Francisco-based cultural center and chess club — and San Quentin SkunkWorks — a nonprofit that empowers incarcerated people. 

The organizations facilitated inmates, officers and other staff members to challenge each other’s skill at 30 chess tables. Half the players sat at tables to play with Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club timers.

"‘Skunk works’ is a term used in business, engineering and technical fields to describe a small group of innovators working on a world-changing project," the organization states in its written material.

"I’ve been wanting to play some of these guys for a long time," said Correctional Officer J. Havard, who played inmate Kelton O’Connor.

"He won one and I won one," said Havard. "It was really fun. Revolutionary."

Havard said playing opponents who are better at the game makes him a better player.

"It can’t get better than playing chess while you get paid," he said.

Collaboration without competition

The event was designed by SkunkWorks, using research that partners incarcerated people with officers based on the contact hypothesis, the idea that contact between different groups can decrease tensions and eliminate barriers between them.

Incarcerated people designed the unique gaming format based on months of research and a novel way to accommodate San Quentin’s conditions. More than 150 people attended the event between morning and afternoon, including dozens of guests from the outside.

"Ultimately, I see SkunkWorks in the restorative justice model," said Kai Bannon, the organization’s founder who is also incarcerated. "I want to give people a path back to heal communities. We’re allowing people the opportunity to do good."

"I was just excited to see that officers were embracing this experience," O’Connor said. "Corrections officers who are willing to cross these lines and challenge norms should be commended."

Here, the contact hypothesis was put into practice, with the key element being collaboration without competition.

Correctional Sgt. Brenes played Juan Haines, who is incarcerated. Brenes discussed how some players think "five plays ahead."

That’s the point, many say, what rehabilitation is about: thinking ahead.

"There’s people here today that I wouldn’t expect to be here," said Lt. B. Haub.

He explained that some of the older generation of correctional officers and inmates come from a time when such events were unheard of.

"It’s great seeing everyone sitting here playing chess together. I think everyone’s having a good time. I haven’t heard anything negative," Haub said.

A San Quentin prisoner sits across the chess board from a corrections officer during the "Pawns to Progress" chess event hosted by San Quentin SkunkWorks on March 5, 2024. Incarcerated members of the SkunkWorks’ team wore special button-up blue shirt

Building bridges

Capt. Z. Robberecht said he plays chess online at His assessment of the SkunkWorks chess event at San Quentin was "great."

The score of chess matches were about even for him.

"I played some of the top guys," he said. "I found the good guys. I won a few and lost a few."

He shook hands with one of his incarcerated challengers after a game. The experience, he said, was for "introduction pre-game development."

"For an open call event, they tend to be chaotic," said Jim Kitlas, who is incarcerated. "But this one is actually functioning well. The interaction with staff went really well. That was the whole intention of this — to build bridges."

"It’s a monumental occasion," said Kevin Schrubb, who is incarcerated and has volunteered with SkunkWorks for nine months. "I never thought I’d see this. I’m happy I’m a part of it."

Schrubb ended the day collecting surveys about the event.

SkunkWorks’ incarcerated inside team wore special button-up blue shirts with "San Quentin SkunkWorks" patches sewn on the front. They were donated by the clothing company 4imprint. To further distinguish the group, lanyards hung around their necks to hold their IDs.

Bannon said SkunkWorks does well at building better programs because it relies on San Quentin’s current 55,263 years of incarcerated people’s time and experience, and it uses a restorative justice model that does not rely solely on a victim-offender dialogue.

"The reality is most people come from broken communities that need investment," said Bannon.

He acknowledged some people have damaged their communities, but to remedy the problem, he sees this as an opportunity for people to obtain the tools they need to improve their communities.

"Swords to plowshares" is how he described the process.

"You can’t wait until you leave prison to start that transformation," he said.

Transformation and innovation are at the heart of SkunkWorks, which is driven by data and quantifiable, evidence-based solutions.

"This is transformation in the flesh," said Warren.

This story first appeared on, supported by the Bay City News Foundation.