Across the world on a Saturday morning, residents in prisons, young offender institutions, and correctional facilities are walking, jogging, running and volunteering in a groundbreaking initiative that is changing the lives of prisoners and staff alike.
Two years on from the first event, we take a look at the phenomenal success of parkruns on the custodial estate.
It all began in May 2017 with an email to parkrun from gym manager Shane Spencer at HMP Haverigg.
Hi, I am the gym manager working in HMP Haverigg up in Cumbria. I would like to enquire about getting a parkrun event set up inside our prison so that our prisoners can have the opportunity to get involved in this initiative. Hopefully they will then want to access an event closer to home upon their release.
Fast forward six months and Black Combe parkrun was born in the grounds of the Category C prison on Saturday 4 November 2017, with 24 finishers and 11 volunteers taking part in the inaugural event. Within days the news had spread and parkrun enquiries started coming in from other prisons about setting up events on their sites.
The following months saw more events launched on the grounds of several male prisons across the UK and Ireland. Young Offender Institutes followed in their footsteps, with Keppel parkrun at Wetherby Young Offender Institute launching in July 2018.
One year on, the first parkrun for women in custody was established at the Wandoo Rehabilitation Prison in Perth, Australia. The UK soon followed suit and, on the 15th anniversary of parkrun, 40 walkers, joggers and runners and 12 volunteers took part in the inaugural Downview parkrun, the first event in a UK women’s prison.
While physical activity programmes are not a new thing on the custodial estate, the regular, weekly nature of parkrun, and the fact that those in custody deliver the event, adds an extra dimension to what is currently available.
There are currently more than 20 parkruns on the custodial estate in the UK, two in Ireland and six in Australia.
More than 23,000 walks, jogs and runs have been completed on the custodial estate, clocked up by over 4,000 parkrunners, and there are 26 prisoners in the 50 milestone club.
But it is the stories behind these numbers where the real impact is to be found. parkruns in prisons are delivered entirely by those in custody, with a member of staff as Event Director.
The Governor at HMP Downview, Natasha Wilson, participates alongside the residents at Downview parkrun. Natasha is a passionate parkrunner with her own personal story, and following the first event in October 2019 she told us:
“I am extremely proud of Downview parkrun, the sense of community is brilliant. I’m always keen to mirror activities in the community that our women can carry on with upon release.
The first parkrun at Downview was an amazing event. Our residents and staff participated side by side, walking, running and volunteering together.
I am hoping that Downview parkrun will continue to grow with not only those who are already physically active, but also those who aren’t as fit and may not normally attend the gym due to lack of confidence or not finding activities that they enjoy. I know that the women are enjoying Saturday mornings and many of them have talked to me about the individual benefits they have felt.”
Roger Steggles, Physical Education Senior Officer at HMP Wayland and Event Director of Wayland parkrun echoes Natasha’s words.
“I can honestly say that nothing has given me more pleasure and job satisfaction than Wayland parkrun.
Most sports in prisons involve staff setting them up, organising and clearing up, but with parkrun, it’s different. The event is set up and led by the prisoners themselves as volunteers, and they do this with pride, just the same as parkrun outside the fence.
There’s a buzz on a Saturday morning, unlike any other time, and a rush in the afternoon to check the results board.”
Feltham parkrun launched in Feltham Young Offender Institute in February 2019. Event Director, Michelle Glassup told us, “if success was measured in smiles, we’d smash it every week.”
Around the world, governments have been extremely supportive of parkruns on custodial sites. In the UK, HMPPS provide all of the funding for the sites that they oversee.
parkrun are currently working with HMPPS, Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) and Professor Rosie Meek, a leading expert in the field of physical activity interventions on the custodial estate, to undertake a thorough evaluation of the initiative in the UK.
The initial feedback from those in custody suggests that the impact of parkrun on prisoners and staff mirrors the findings of parkrun Irelands’s recent Health and Wellbeing Survey. One participant from Berwyn parkrun, Wales, emphasised the value of volunteering:
“Volunteering at parkrun has been the most rewarding aspect. Prison is a harsh place, so to be out there doing something good, helpful and kind – it’s humanising. And it’s infectious.”
And, just like the 85% of respondents to the UK Health and Wellbeing Survey, those in custody have also highlighted the benefit of parkrun on their physical health.
“As someone who landed in the prison establishment crushing the scales at more than 20 stone, the mere thought of running was as likely as the prison’s catering department getting a Michelin star.
Before I took my first strides, I thought people might laugh or ridicule me. But there was just a bunch of guys who recognised I was trying to better myself. I found encouragement, positivity and support – something that can be in short supply here. A fellow prisoner even told me he was proud of me for getting out there and having a go. That meant a lot.”
A prisoner in Ireland told us that although An Bonnán Buí parkrun is extremely physically challenging “it’s fantastic for both inmates and staff. We are like a team, trying to improve times each week and encouraging each other. The volunteers have a teammate like spirit between them and also encourage every participant.
The staff in Loughan are great. They give us every opportunity to improve our lives going forward and we can sense off them that they really want us to do well in life.”
In a handwritten letter to parkrun, a resident at HMP Buckley Hall wrote “the parkrun events are a place where anyone from any background, race, ability, or age can connect and feel part of a collective spirit.
parkrun energises me every Saturday morning, walking and running with a good group of people gave me a sense of attachment to this nationwide event, for the rest of the day I feel like I’m part of something bigger.”
With the mission to create a healthier and happier planet, parkrun seeks to encourage prisoners who are less active to participate in parkrun. As a way of reaching out to those people, health centres on the custodial estate are encouraged to connect with the event as part of the parkrun practice initiative. A handful of sites are already signposting patients and staff to the parkrun held in their grounds.
Reducing reoffending is an important aim of the initiative, with parkrun providing a welcoming, non-judgemental and positive community that can help support reintegration into society.
The parkrunner above, upon leaving HMP Buckley Hall, recounted how he travelled two hours to attend parkrun. Braving the “Beast from the East”, he was blown away by the safe and welcoming atmosphere of parkrun, a place where he forgot he’d left his smartphone at the finish and was amazed to discover it still there 45 minutes later “exactly where he left it.”
parkrunner Paul, who was on the start line of that first ever parkrun at HMP Haverigg credits parkrun for helping him get back on his feet after his release, “When you come out of prison, getting back on your feet is hard, especially financially. So, having something free, and regular, was amazing for me. I now have a full-time job, and have been reunited with my son. I have a simple life which I am truly grateful for.”
parkruns in custodial estates are being officially recognised for the incredible difference they are making to staff and residents alike.
The initiative placed in the Big Issue’s Top 100 Changemakers 2019, which recognises interventions lighting the way and changing the world for the better.
Keppel parkrun, now into its second year, was commended by Leeds City Council in their Awards for Excellence 2019 Programme, as part of the annual Children and Families Awards.
Progression parkrun in Ireland was awarded the Irish Prison Service’s Excellence and Innovation Award for enhancing the daily lives of inmates and staff. The Irish Prison Service praised the “benefit that parkrun gives as a platform for inmates, upon their release, to have a community with which they can run with, or assist through volunteering.”
Shane Spencer was honoured with a Commendation from The Butler Trust for his work promoting the physical and mental health of prisoners, and setting up the world’s first ever parkrun on a custodial estate.
He told us “Saturday mornings have become a focal point for a lot of the men here and it is something they really look forward to. The sense of camaraderie during each event is really encouraging and the fact that we fill our volunteer roster come rain or shine is a testament to the pride that the men have in this event and their determination to keep it going.”
Chrissie Wellington, Head of Health and Wellbeing, parkrun Global
“For parkrun, establishing events on the custodial estate was a groundbreaking step but fitted perfectly with our mission of creating a healthier and happier planet, by engaging those who are marginalised in regular, communal activity in the open air.
Huge credit must be given to Shane Spencer, the visionary brainchild who saw the incredible potential for parkrun to change the lives of those in custody, and to the government officials who have lent the initiative their support.
However, neither Shane nor parkrun could have imagined the rate at which the floodgates would open following the launch of Black Combe parkrun; with nearly 30 events being established in three countries in just over two years.
The launch of events on the female estate is particularly significant, given evidence suggesting that the need for interventions, like parkrun, might be greatest on those sites. The feedback we are receiving from staff and those in custody has been overwhelmingly positive, and cements our belief about the value that parkrun participation can bring to those who are involved.
The implementation of this initiative has been a phenomenal team effort, involving parkrun staff and Ambassadors, government officials, academics and, of course, those from the custodial estate who have worked so hard to launch and deliver the events each and every week.
Without a shadow of a doubt this has, for me personally, been one of the most meaningful projects I have ever had the privilege to be involved with and I believe we have only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of the potential scale and impact.
The future will see us launching new events on a range of different custodial sites, developing detailed insight through a thorough evaluation and furthering efforts to engage those in custody who are less active.
We will continue to contribute to work taking place across the criminal justice sector to break the cycle of offending and imprisonment using the transformative power of parkrun.”
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