Sport programs in prison are aiming to end reoffending. And the results are striking on both sides of the Atlantic
Markelle Taylor finished the 2019 Boston Marathon in three hours, three minutes and 52 seconds, a blisteringly fast time for a 46-year-old man who did all of his training on a quarter-mile track of asphalt, gravel and dirt with six 90-degree turns. Weeks before, on 2 March 2019, Taylor was released on parole from San Quentin State Prison in California after serving 17 years and seven months after being found guilty of second-degree murder.
Some prisons are trying to reduce recidivism by offering organized sports programs. These programs go beyond one or two hours of daily recreation by introducing volunteer coaches from outside the prisons, as well as rules to remain in the program. Through sports such as baseball, running and rugby, inmates are finding structure, learning social skills and building self-esteem. Taylor found his speed and inner strength while training with the San Quentin 1,000 Mile Running Club.
At the end of 2017, 1,489,363 prisoners were in custody in state and federal prisons in the United States. Once these inmates are released from prison, they are likely to reoffend and find themselves back in custody. Eighty-three percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once during the nine years following their release, and 44% were arrested during their first year after release.
High recidivism rates are not limited to the United States. Between 2016 and 2017, 48.3% of adults and 64.9% of juveniles released from custody reoffended within one year in England and Wales.
Through running, Taylor said he learned he is a work in progress and theres always room for improvement. He added: People that run distance because of what they go through, and the pain that they sometimes suffer running distance, and training to run distance, and just never giving up, it makes you humble. It makes you look at things differently and put them in perspective, have more empathy, and compassion, and understanding.
Although he ran cross country and track in high school, Taylor was not interested in running when he first arrived in San Quentin seven years ago. He did not begin running until a friend of his took his own life after his fourth or fifth parole denial. At first, Taylor ran on his own as a tribute to his friend, but another friend eventually convinced him to join the running club.
The 1,000 Mile Running Club began in 2005 when Laura Bowman, a teacher at the prison, founded the club and invited Frank Ruona to coach the runners. Ruona was the head coach at Marin Countys Tamalpa Runners, and he initially was the only volunteer at the program. Ruona believed he could help inmates become healthier.
Today, he has about 10 volunteers helping him on a regular basis. They run evening workouts every other Monday and races on one Friday per month on the prison track. Ruona also holds informal workouts on most of the Fridays when they arent holding races.
Ruona still coaches Taylor, who has joined the Tamalpa Runners. He helped Taylor get a job at the construction company Ruona retired from. Another former San Quentin runner works at the construction company with Taylor. About 10 more are still in the Bay Area and try to get together for runs a couple of times a year. Five former San Quentin runners ran in the Dipsea Race in June, and Tamalpa Runners paid their entry fees. What Ive found is that if the guys have some kind of support system when they come out, they do very well, Ruona said.
Organized sports have a long history in US prisons. Fans of the classic 1974 movie The Longest Yard, starring Burt Reynolds, might think the story of a prisoner football team is pure fantasy, but Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York fielded the Sing Sing Black Sheep football team in the 1930s. As early as 1912, prisoners played baseball at Atlantas Federal Penitentiary, and other baseball prison programs soon sprang up at Sing Sing and San Quentin in California. The Sing Sing baseball team even played an exhibition against the 1929 New York Yankees team that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Since 1931, prison rodeos have entertained inmates and the general public. The Texas Prison Rodeo was held in Huntsville, Texas, from 1931 until 1986, but ended due to budgetary concerns. The Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary opened in 1965 and is still running. It has grown so popular the prison built a 10,000 seat arena in 2000.
Prisoners have been running in prisons long before the 1,000 Mile Club formed. Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Marathon, started the first and only USA Track & Field sanctioned running club inside a prison at Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts in the 1980s. His association with the prison started on 14 June 1980, when McGillivray was the only non-inmate to run an eight-mile race against 20 to 30 inmates.
McGillivray kept coming back, organizing three to four more 10Ks and a marathon at the prison involving outsiders and inmates. Thirty to 40 inmates paid a registration fee to officially register the club with USATF, but the prison administration became suspicious of the club and shut it down after about five or six years. Even though McGillivray received criticism for helping prisoners, he said, My theory is this: Some of these guys are going to get out, and Id rather have them better on the way out than they were on the way in.
Mike Crofts, CEO of the London-based 3Pillars Project, agrees. Releasing mentally healthy citizens is beneficial for all of us, he explained. The 3Pillars Project is an intensive eight-week rugby program offered in five British prisons. The program uses a holistic approach to assist inmates by providing mentors who develop action plans with participants, conduct anger management discussions and leadership coaching, assist with CV writing, and discuss course work and life in general.
Crofts, an officer in the British Army for eight years, founded the program after volunteering as a rugby coach at the Feltham Young Offenders Institution in South West London. The youth prison holds offenders between the ages of 15 and 21. Crofts saw potential where others might have found despair. He said, I felt that, if given the right mentoring and development, they could achieve as much as some of the fantastic young men I had served in Afghanistan with.
The 3Pillars Project teaches leadership and is demanding of its participants.