ConnectSport is working with the Sport for Development Coalition to create a monthly 'call for articles' around a particular theme or subject area. Throughout December 2018 we are publishing articles focusing on 'Sport's role in reducing crime'. Here Glen Turner, Communications Manager for parkrun UK, writes about the first parkrun inside a prison. To submit an article, contact email@example.com.
Every journey starts with a single step, and this one started with an email from Shane Spencer, the gym manager at HMP Haverigg 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,” it read.
Six months after this email was sent, HMP Haverigg became the first prison in the world to host a parkrun. Wedged between the boundary of the Lake District National Park and the Irish Sea is a little strip of land barely the length of a parkrun. There lies HMP Haverigg, one of the 140 prisons and young offenders institutions in the UK.
Every Saturday morning, beyond the eerie silence of the prison car park and the security checkpoint, a corridor is filled with the echoes of excited voices. This narrow passageway joins a concrete courtyard to the sports hall where the prisoners meet before parkrun and socialise afterwards with tea and coffee. You feel the atmosphere before you see anyone.
Arriving in the sports hall, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were mingling with the masses at any other parkrun. And it is – free, 5k, every week, forever. But it’s what this parkrun represents that makes it so significant.
“We all have enormous pride in being the first prison parkrun and it’s great to see more and more prisons joining the parkrun family,” said Shane (pictured above right), who has been the Event Director since day one.
“When I initially got in touch with parkrun HQ with my idea I had no idea the impact it was going to have, not just on me but also the men in our care.”
Black Combe parkrun, as the event is known, is named after a prominent hill that can be seen from the outdoor sports field where parkrun takes place. In its first year it not only had a positive impact on the 300 prisoners and staff who took part as walkers, runners and volunteers – the benefits have extended throughout the prison environment at HMP Haverigg and far beyond its walls. A further eight prisons and young offenders institutions in the UK and Ireland now host parkruns, with two more set to launch and many more in the pipeline.
The sports hall in the prison is a hive of activity as 9am approaches, with around 25 prisoners warming up for their 5k around the prison field while a handful of others don high-vis vests, get the equipment ready and deliver the pre-event welcome.
While physical activity programmes are not a new thing in the custodial estate, the prominence of volunteering at parkrun and the variety of roles available on a weekly basis adds an extra dimension to what is currently available. Prisoners deliver the event for other prisoners.
Richard, who is one of four inmates at Black Combe parkrun to have joined the ‘25 volunteer’ club, wanted to keep up his involvement after picking up an injury.
“The community spirit is great and my friends all take part so I volunteered as a course marshal, a timekeeper and then Run Director. For a weekend morning activity, parkrun is incredibly popular and has maintained its numbers whereas other sessions at the same time haven’t.”
On one of the walls in the sports hall proudly displays newspaper articles announcing the launch of Black Combe parkrun as the world’s first prison-based event. There are also photos, print-outs of previous results, the volunteer roster, weekly newsletters, parkrun blogs and letters from former prisoners who were introduced to parkrun at HMP Haverigg who now take part in the wider community. Because the prisoners don’t have access to technology, this is how they keep informed.
“The men here are very aware that they are part of parkrun history,” said Shane. The 44-year-old has lived in the area his entire life and has spent half of it working at HMP Haverigg. He was an officer for the first 11 years before moving into the gym as a Physical Education Instructor (PEI) in 2007.
“Saturday mornings have become a focal point for a lot of the men here and it is something they really look forward to,” he said. “The sense of camaraderie during each event is really encouraging and the fact that we fill our volunteer roster come rain or shine is testament to the pride that the men have in this event and their determination to keep it going.”
The course itself is eight loops of the prison field, with participants collecting a wristband on each lap. Aaron, who heard about parkrun at his gym induction, says his favourite role is handing out the lap bands.
“I enjoy the responsibility of organising and passing out the bands and encouraging and motivating everyone as they go by. I was proud to achieve my 25 shirt because it makes feel appreciated and part of a team.”
Many of the inmates wear clothes and trainers that have been donated thanks to collections from local running clubs. A further boost has been the linking of Black Combe parkrun with HMP Haverigg’s medical facility, which has become an official ‘parkrun Practice’. These referrals, which see prisoners prescribed physical activity rather than a traditional prescription, is enhancing the event’s reputation as a health intervention.
“One of the key things for me is speaking to men who don’t attend the gym and encouraging them to try parkrun,” said Shane. “The changes to some of these lads is really significant, not just physically but mentally as well. It’s great to see their improvements – PBs are always nice – but the real benefit is to their health and wellbeing, including their attitude, mood and their behaviour on the wings throughout the week.
“parkrun has also improved the relationship the men have with each other and the staff. Some inmates who never would have interacted on the wings before have met through parkrun and socialise outside of Saturday morning.”
More than 800 different people have now completed a prison-based parkrun across the UK and Ireland and 310 have volunteered. Paul, who has volunteered 30 times, was encouraged to get involved by another prisoner. “I enjoyed the atmosphere, encouraging people and simply being outside,” he said. “I am certain that volunteering at parkrun will help me when I’m released.”
If you work in a prison and are interested in starting a parkrun, please get in touch using this form.