Progression parkrun is part of a worldwide network of which there are more than 290,000 events across five continents. The 20 Progression parkrun participants are among the more-than 3.5 million who currently take part in the event. Each participant is registered and has a unique barcode that records their participation and times – Mountjoy parkrunners are no different. However, their registration is done by prison authorities with an approved email address that only Richie has access to and through which he collates the weekly run times for the prisoners. Registering the prisoners to begin with was a ‘logistical nightmare’ he says.
“When you want to do a regular parkrun on the outside, you simply register yourself. Here, the prisoners have no access to the internet, so we must register everyone. They can’t use their own names because the results are made public, so we must change their names so that when the results are public, they cannot be identified. That is probably one of the biggest challenges that we have with this.”
When a prisoner is released and wants to participate in a community parkrun, he retains the barcode but can change the email address to a personal one, as well as the name.
“The whole idea behind this initiative is so that when they get out of prison, the lads can have the opportunity to join up with any parkrun. The barcode they have been given in here is the one they will always have, for life, and when they get out they can change the email address,” says Richie.
Recently, Richie received an unexpected but very welcome email one Saturday when a former prisoner’s parkrun time popped up in his inbox.
“One of the lads who had gotten out of prison recently, participated in a community parkrun event and hadn’t changed his email, so when he had completed it, I was able to see his time. “So, that is a little success story there for us, seeing him go on to do that. And there could be more, but we just don’t know because they may have changed email addresses.”
So, how has Progression parkrun, well, progressed, since last September?
“From my perspective, the parkrun is very positive for the prison,” says Eddie. “On a fortnightly basis, members of the public come in and run the event here with the prisoners; they love to come in, it gives them an insight into the atmosphere in the prison, how prisoners and staff engage. It is quite a relaxed environment we work in and although we have challenges on a daily basis, generally speaking, initiatives like the parkrun, initiatives that involve soccer, exercise, nutrition, all of those things, normalise the environment a bit. We see some prisoners who really set themselves challenges to improve their times – it’s nearly what they live for from week to week. I think it’s a win-win for both the prisoners and the prison service,” says Eddie.
The Progression Unit is housed within the main prison campus, but it is a separate entity to the rest of the prison. On the day of interview, 682 prisoners were incarcerated in Mountjoy, which has an operational capacity of 554, according to the Irish Prison Service. The Progression Unit is, as Eddie explains, the place within Mountjoy Prison where an initiative like parkrun can most succeed.
“The reason this is operational in the Progression Unit is because the prisoners in this Unit have made a conscious choice to try to engage in education, training, psychology, whatever is available to them. The prison system is broken down into different types. You have guys who are seriously challenging, who are seriously difficult to manage, chaotic drug users; and then you have guys who go through the system, who start to rehabilitate and their priorities in life change. They might have children, and drugs might not be as important to them any longer. I don’t think Progression parkrun would have the same success in the main prison because of the types of challenges that exist for the prisoners in there.”
The positive impact it has made on prisoners’ general health and attitude is notable, Eddie, Donncha and Richie agree.
“I’m thinking of one particular prisoner who is serving a life sentence,” says Eddie.
“He would have had a chaotic lifestyle. He has had difficulties in the prison system, difficulties with addiction, he has a lot of issues and would have been in the thick of things that have arisen in here from time to time. His attitude now is just unbelievable. He is determined to succeed at the parkrun, to improve all the time. And it is having a positive effect on him in that drugs are no longer an issue for him; he is focused on his own health and his mental state is very strong at the moment. He is proud of his achievement, he is proud that he can sustain it and it puts him on a par with others who do parkruns on the outside.” This particular prisoner is one of several who are currently training for a half marathon in aid of the National Council for the Blind Ireland – that is 31 laps of the internal perimeter.
Donncha agrees: “I can think of another guy, who only eight or nine months ago, was in our challenging behaviour unit, who was causing disruption, who was violent towards prison staff, who was chaotic, who was using drugs. And when he came to the Progression Unit, he got involved with Richie and the parkrun and now, every Saturday morning, is doing the parkrun. You can really see the difference in that guy. He has refocused his lifestyle in here.”
Eddie comments: “This guy has emerged as a leader, really. He has had many, many issues. And, while this may not set him on the right path permanently, he is in a good place. He is proud of what he is doing.”
Members of the public can and are welcome to apply to take part in the Progression parkrun in Mountjoy Prison and by doing so, can help prisoners’ eventual re-integration in to society in a number of ways, explains Eddie: “Those who can work with us, and help us, do so in the following ways. Prisoners are not job-ready when they leave prison. They need support. So sometimes, companies get in touch with us about coming in to do the run and sometimes they are willing to work with us, by providing even just one training place or by supporting a guy who might want to go to college, or whatever the case may be.
“A lot of research will tell you that the biggest challenge for a prisoner, especially for someone who has served a long sentence is actually going back home and being accepted by his neighbours who may be afraid that he will rob them. Acceptance is really important. So what other runners can do is they can be there to accept the prisoner back into society or the community when they go back out and want to do a parkrun.”