“What the heck am I doing?”
I repeated this question to myself as I sat in the visitor parking lot at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem this past Saturday. The realization of what I was about to embark on suddenly became very real as I gazed up at the old stone structure in front of me, complete with steel bars and endless coils of barbwire along the walls. What sounded intriguing and exciting when I did my a preview few weeks prior now seemed – well, frankly nuts.
But I wasn’t going to back out. My (silly) machismo kicked in and I figuratively puffed out my chest. “Nothing is going to scare me” was essentially oozing out of my facade. As I meandered up the steps to the entrance, a strong chilly wind ripped through the American flag on an otherwise eerily quiet late-morning. A fitting start to the day indeed.
My nerves did not quickly ease up, as the guards at the front desk area remained mostly stoic and serious (for good reason). Our guide, Bill, was personable and absolutely great, but did bring things back to earth with his reading that, “there is always a risk for a riot in a prison”, but tried to “ease our minds” that guards will not shoot at orange, so as long as we keep our provided flourescent orange vests on we will be fine. Some comfort indeed. The ongoing maze of heavily barred gates and security checks to get into the bowels of the Prison, and the walk into the Yard provided an intimidating vison typically only seen in violent prison movies.
But here is where things took a turn – and for the better. In fact, running in this seemingly negative environment was, ironically, one of the most eye-opening and positive running experience I have ever experienced.
Attending the race as “outsiders” were two gentlemen – one who had done these runs before and another who was attending his first, but had been to the prison Chapel service and knew some of the inmates as a result. There were also two women in attendance – one from the Oregon Coast and her mother-in-law from California who were first-timers. As the inmates started to trickle into the old and run-down athletic area, it was unclear exactly how to handle things. “How is this all this going to work?””Am I supposed to talk to them?” “Are they supposed to talk to me?” The answers to these musings came quickly, as the inmates happily sought out the two gentlemen who had been there before and started to catch up on how things were going. Almost immediately, a few inmates came up to me, introduced themselves and started engaging in conversation. And the surprising part was that it really wasn’t that awkward. Sure, we were standing in a prison, but despite the inmates’ pasts, they were friendly, courteous, engaging, and expressed a sincere thankfulness that we came to run with them.
One inmate mentioned that, while he imagined it was awkward and uncomfortable coming into the prison, he thought it would be good for people to see that many of the inmates, especially those in good enough standing to be allowed to participate in the Athletic Club, were still people despite their mistakes. He referenced the 1 in 100 report, a 2008 study that showed that 1 in 100 Americans were behind bars, and wanted to express that their predicament was unfortunately not an anomaly across the population landscape. He had a desire to show that he, as well as others, can be successful in prison, as well as out in the community when the time comes. Their committment and engagement with the Athletic Club gave them drive and purpose while inside the walls, as well as a feeling of comradery and teamwork that keeps them active and striving for success.
Speaking of positive traits, the race itself was as big of a deal as could possibly be made in the unique environment. All runners, inmate or outsider, received an actual race-specific bib. Registration was just like any other race out there, with distances (10k or 5k) attached and assigned to each number. A professional timingclock, which one inmate was excited to admit to have done some minor electrical work on to get ready for the event, was taken to the finish line. A table was set up with water and Gatorade to be handed out. There were even bananas available afterwards and results were tracked and photos taken. Pretty incredible.
The race course itself was obviously limited. 5k runners started at the NW corner of the athletic field and 10k runners started at the SE side, near the weightlifting “yard”. Runners would complete a myriad of laps until their desired distance was reached. That meant 19 laps for us 10k participants. The course was a loop and was paved for the most part. From where I started, we headed clockwise before a very brief grass section led us to a separate path. This guided us through a door in one chain link fence, crossing through the basketball court, around the backside of the athletic gym, past the handball area, and back through another fence before returning to the main paved path. The East and South walls, complete with barbed wire and guard towers overhead, towered high above the pathway.
The support of the inmates was unlike any I have ever experienced. The running prowess varied from walkers to really fast runners. The winner of the 10k actually ended up lapping me, something I was both upset with and happy for at the same time. One jovial and stocky man came up to me and chided that he runs a 4 minute mile and that if he came up to pass me, I should make sure I am to the right of the path. I laughed, as did he. With each lap, and each time I lapped a fellow runner, I was met with a hearty congratulations and encouragement to keep it up. A constant barrage of being cheered for by name for 40 minutes was pretty incredible stuff.
I noted that, at times, the two women participants ran alone and sometimes side-by-side with inmates. As I passed them, I could hear them just chatting – about life inside and outside the walls – without incident and with care and compassion for each other. It was a two-way street. As we were walking out, the women expressed their glowing experience to me and stated how glad they were to run within the walls. They never felt threatened or made to feel awkward in the least – quite the contrary in fact. They vowed to return.
The one constant question that people have been asking me since the run is, “do you know what they were in for?” The funny thing about it is that I initially thought this would be the only thing on my mind. But in the end, I ended up never really thinking about it. I mean, it’s a prison – there is a reason why people are there. But, for at least an hour or so, it didn’t really matter. It was just like any other race; an opportunity to meet people, interact, and have a silent bond of “being a runner” and accomplishing a common goal with complete strangers. We were just people – just runners – and that’s exactly what these guys are hoping for an hour each month.
The inmates, who by the end of the day knew I was a blogger, politely urged other people to come out and run with them in the future. I told them I would do my best to showcase what a unique experience this was, and I STRONGLY encourage you to do this (not to mention it’s free). Here are the details for their future races:
- 9/12/14 = 2nd Annual High Wall Half Marathon
Here is what I learned that will make things easier on you:
- Do NOT wear blue.
- Wear appropriate clothes (nothing short, tight, or revealing)
- Lockers are provided by the Prison. The key can be held by one of the activities personnel or you can keep yourself
- Make sure your ID is current and valid
- No headphones (though the inmates mostly all have mp3 players)
- We got a brief stopover “tour” of the area that houses all the clubs in the prison (athletic, Latino, African, lifers, etc). This was a pretty cool experience.
And the race and registration info again:
The Oregon State Penitentiary Running Program (Salem)
When: 11:15a (show up around 10:15-10:30a for check in) on the above listed Friday and Saturdays
Where: Oregon State Penitentiary
Register: FREE; Participation is by application only. Fill out and mail it to:
Ray Austin, Athletic Club staff advisor
2605 State Street
Salem, Oregon 97310
Attn: SKJI0k Race