When you consider that prisoners are cocooned in concrete and steel for most of the week, the appeal of an outdoor run in a green space might seem obvious. But talk to the men here and you realise that, for many of them, doing parkrun is about more than just getting some fresh air and sunshine.
“It’s a chance to feel human,” one parkrunner said. “To see the sky properly, some of the landscape and to smell the turf, it feels amazing. It really picks me up.”
In fact, every person I asked said the boost to their mental wellbeing was the biggest benefit of parkrun; the sense of freedom, the runner’s high, but also the sense of inclusion.
That feeling stems partly from exercising as a group. Indeed, friendships have flourished out on the Wayland track, as have new training partnerships. One man was even offered legitimate paid employment upon release after striking up a conversation with a fellow volunteer.
But it also comes from knowing that thousands of other people across the country are doing the same thing at the same time – all under the same parkrun banner.
Surprisingly, it’s bringing loved ones closer together too, thanks to the Wayland results page on the parkrun website.
That family, friends and partners can check parkrunners’ times is valuable to the men here because it represents a chance to share an experience with the people they love, that doesn’t take place in the visits hall or over the telephone.
In other words, it’s a positive new way to feature in each other’s lives regardless of the distance between them.
“My sister and my young nephew both do parkrun where they live,” one man told me, “so it’s a nice way to connect with them and we enjoy comparing times. It feels normal to have something in common for us to talk about.”
The online results facility is also proving a hit internationally. One man I spoke to has family and friends as far away as Germany, Moldova and Russia checking his progress.
As well as all this, parkrun is helping people with drug problems to switch out poisonous habits for healthy ones, and it’s helping even more people to manage mental health conditions.
The physical aspect of the event is its biggest draw, though. After all, training is the main focus of many people’s lives in prison. Some who train regularly, use parkrun as an additional cardio workout and monitor their performances closely.
“This week I have taken time off from training in the gym to focus on running on the yard so that I can try to set a new parkrun PB on Saturday,” one man said. “My aim is to get down to 22.30, which is 15 seconds off my current time.”
You hear lots of talk about PBs around the jail these days. Even men who have never run, and who don’t normally feel at home in the gym, frequently take part now and set themselves targets.
Naturally, there is competition between runners too. Those clocking similar times often develop a healthy rivalry – especially if they’re friends – which pushes them on to improve. Plus, it provides good banter fodder, especially when the printed results are displayed in the gym on a Saturday afternoon.
That said, there is incredible support out on the field. There are cheers of encouragement for every single runner, whoever it is and whatever their ability.
“There is definitely a different atmosphere out on the parkrun track compared to the normal prison environment,” one regular parkrunner said.
“The people that take part are self-selecting, so they tend to be well organised and motivated. It makes for a really good group which has a positive social effect because you meet like-minded people.”
It’s clear, then, that parkrun’s positive impact on the general health and wellbeing of the guys here is huge. And wellbeing is important in prison because the stakes are so high.
All too often, people who struggle to cope in jail hurt themselves. This is illustrated by the alarming rise in the number of cases of self-harm and suicide across the prison estate in recent years. Those who do leave, but return to society damaged or addicted, are much more likely to re-offend.
Therefore, it’s in everybody’s interest to keep prisoners well – and parkrun is doing just that. Not only is it helping prisoners to stay physically fit, it’s helping to build the confidence, character and inner resources required to turn things around – one positive step at a time.
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