Mountjoy Prison is a ‘closed, medium-security prison for adult males’, located in Dublin city. Beyond the barbed-wire and high walls, life continues as normal in the capital. Inside those same walls, every Saturday morning, something unusual takes place. A parkrun. Mountjoy Prison’s ‘Progression parkrun’, to be exact. The Progression parkrun has been operational within Mountjoy since its launch by Lord Mayor of Dublin, Nial Ring, himself an avid parkrunner, in September 2018. Bernie Commins visited the prison recently to find out why authorities there support this initiative, and what the impact has been since its introduction.
The weekly parkrun - whether in Ireland, the UK, wherever in the world - transcends the 5km distance it requires participants to run. It has become something of an umbrella movement, under which various groups unite for various reasons, with running as a common denominator. Parkrun is helping to promote fitness and wellness in the general community, it is encouraging children to get active through junior parkrun and in parts of Ireland ‘as gaeilge-friendly’ parkruns are a thing. In the last issue of Irish Runner, we learned about the Sanctuary Runners and how parkrun is facilitating integration within communities, helping to break down barriers.
While it may seem like an unlikely event to take place in an institution like Mountjoy, according to governor, Eddie Mullins, deputy governor, Donncha Walshe and gym officer, Richie Bruce, it is a great success.
Seven and a half laps of the internal perimeter of Mountjoy Prison makes up Progression parkrun’s 5km. It is certainly no picturesque run in the park, but it is the only route available for Progression parkrun, so-called because it is open only to prisoners within Mountjoy’s Progression Unit, set up in 2017. As the name may suggest, the Progression Unit caters for prisoners who want, and who are eligible, to engage in rehabilitation services that are available to them within the prison. There are 165 prisoners in the Progression Unit, 75 of whom are registered for Progression parkrun.
“The Progression Unit was the old St Pat’s Institution [youth detention centre],” explains Donncha. “When this closed in 2017, it was renamed the Progression Unit to take the best, enhanced prisoners in Mountjoy, and other prisons, to start the rehabilitation process with them, so that they would leave prison with something – a skill or a work placement, for example, and now we have the parkrun as part of that. The whole idea of the Unit is to reduce recidivism (reoffending).”
“Progression parkrun is open only to prisoners within the Progression Unit and just under 50 per cent of the 165 prisoners in the Unit are registered to do the parkrun every week.”
Prison parkruns are a relatively new phenomenon but are catching on. While Mountjoy Prison is the first in the Republic of Ireland to establish it, low-security Magilligan Prison was the first to introduce it to Northern Ireland in 2018, while in the UK, HMP Haverigg in Cumbria was the first to get it up and running there in 2017. Across Ireland and the UK, there are currently 14 prisons operating a parkrun.
For security reasons, Progression parkrun is limited to 20 participants each Saturday, so in order to give everyone a chance, the participants are staggered from week to week. A team of eight volunteers, also from within the Progression Unit, coordinate the weekly event when they are not running themselves. Apart from uploading their finish times online – prisoners have no access to internet – they do everything else, under strict supervision of the staff, says gym officer, Richie Bruce, who was instrumental in bringing the parkrun to the prison. A seasoned parkrunner himself, if anyone could get it over the finish line, it was he. When Richie first broached the subject with Eddie and Donncha, the consensus was that it could work in Mountjoy, but it would need to be researched and planned adequately. And so, they linked in with their counterparts in Magilligan Prison. They visited the prison, listened and learned before setting it up on a pilot basis in Mountjoy with a limited number of prisoners to begin with.
“I have been involved in more than 85 parkruns myself,” says Richie. “I have been running for years. We had been looking at different initiatives to introduce here in the prison. So, we went to Magilligan Prison in the north and saw how they were running it there. They had organised about 20 parkruns in the prison at that stage, so they knew all the ins and outs about registering the prisoners, renaming them, etc.”
Selling Progression parkrun to the prisoners
Richie explains: “Most of the prisoners had never heard of parkrun before because it is a fairly new thing and most of them would have been in prison whenever it came about. So, we told them about it, that we were going to try to replicate it in the prison, and we ran a pilot for awhile. They loved it. It was so different, being out in the open. They have access to a recreation yard, but they would never be permitted to enter the perimeter of the prison.
“We set the launch date for September 1, 2018, and when the day came, they were like kids with the excitement. They just couldn’t get over that something like this had come into the prison. And every week since, it has been building and building.”
Eddie adds: “They are still as excited as they were when it started. And it is great for us to see and to watch that. There is enough confrontation in prisons for both staff and prisoners, so for a half an hour on Saturday morning, all that disappears. But its success is down to Richie, really, because their [prisoners’] enthusiasm depends on his enthusiasm and he deserves huge recognition for that.”
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.”
In their own words
*Prisoner names have been changed
Mick, 33, serving a life sentence for murder
"From the very first day, I wanted to do the parkrun. I love running and the only time I get to run is on a treadmill in the gym. Then I got the chance to run around the prison every Saturday and I jumped at the opportunity." Mick has made quick progress, achieving a parkrun personal best of 18:25, which he hopes to drop to 18 minutes by the end of the summer. He is very focused on his training, which he undertakes twice a day.
"I do the treadmill four times per week and I do weights every day. I do weights in the morning from 10am-11.45am and then, in the evening, I come down to the gym at about 5.30pm and run until about 6.15pm.
"I love running, I don't know what it does [to me]. I used to take drugs but I don't anymore. I am off drugs two years now. I get a better buzz from running and training and I feel better now than I ever did with drugs.
"I love going to the gym and training all the time, I like the people I meet here. As a young fella, I didn't see the benefits. Now that I put my mind to certain things, I see the rewards from it. I get up fresh. I go asleep earlier. I eat well."
This life is a million miles away from the one which resulted in his drug addiction, his crime and his incarceration.
"I was taking drugs out there, I got involved in a lot of crime and I am in here for a murder. I am in here 11 years. I don't know how long I have left."
Does he think that parkrun can break down barriers and promote integration into the community for people in his situation?
"Definitely. Even when the visitors come in to run with us, they have a chat with us after. There is a parkrun in my local area at home and my brother is starting to do it now. He is training for it and I am hoping that maybe he can come in here and do it with me one day. I will definitely continue this when I get out."
When asked if he understood why people on the outside might criticise the Progression parkrun, he says: "I know what you mean. I did do wrong out there, but I am after changing my whole life for the better. And I am a better person today than I was 11 years ago. I have engaged with all the services in here, and I am positive about things."
John, 36, serving a life sentence for murder
"When I came in here and I found out there would be a parkrun, I thought this was my key. At the start, because of the weight and lack of confidence, I was the tail runner for a while, but I volunteer too at the parkrun, so I am race director on different weekends. I don't tail run anymore because the lads won't let me use it as an excuse to stay at the back.
“So, I've gotten my time down to 29:30 compared to 36 minutes at the start. And I am down to 17.5 stone from 19 stone. But that is all due to the parkrun. Some days you might not feel like going but you will have lads slapping you on the back, saying 'c'mon'.”
The community spirit of parkrun exists in Mountjoy Prison as it does anywhere, he agrees.
“Even though this is an individual sport, we are all in it as a team. Our parkrun is seven and a half laps and every time we do a lap, the volunteers cheer us on, and the first lads to finish are finished 10 minutes before me and then they stand and cheer me around and no matter how bad you feel on the last few hundred metres, you always pick up the pace a little because you can't wait to get to the finish line.
“The positives in running are well documented. I know myself what I went through in life. I committed a terrible act. Now I am in here facing life in prison. Some people medicate, I run, that is my medication. In here you have to find a way to do time, instead of time doing you and the running has enabled a lot of lads to do their time in a healthy and holistic fashion.” When asked about the balance of punishment versus rehabilitation he says: “Rehabilitation doesn't happen for everyone, but when you get involved in the likes of this you start to see things differently in here. The rehabilitation has to be that you don't come back here and if the holistic wellbeing that comes from the running is the way to get you there, then so be it.”
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.”
While he sees the positive influence of Progression parkrun on prisoners’ lives every day, Donncha says that the most significant aspect, for him, is opening up the parkrun to the public, which is breaking down barriers that exist between prisoners and the outside world.
“The key thing for me is opening up the community to the parkrun; getting people in here to run with the prisoners, first and foremost, and making that link with the outside community, so that when they leave here, they will have an option to take part in the parkrun.
“Although we are behind the walls of the prison, at the same time every Saturday morning, whether it is in Marlay Park or the Phoenix Park, the run takes place at exactly the same time under the same conditions. That is a big thing – that this is not just a prison thing, but that we are a part of the parkrun community.”
Prison staff, including Richie and Eddie, also participate in the parkrun alongside the prisoners, which is creating a more harmonious environment within the Unit between both factions. This has required buy-in from everyone and trust on all sides.
“When Richie introduced the idea of the parkrun, there were a few eyebrows raised for sure, but not many,” says Eddie.
“It has been a big culture change in here among the staff, because now it is embedded in the prison. It is a really important initiative through which we break down barriers between prisoners and staff as well. Staff and prisoners run together – and again this would have never been heard of before. Generally speaking, this would have been frowned upon,” he says.
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.”
And it may well be frowned upon still by some readers who believe that running around the perimeter of Mountjoy Prison is a liberty that should not be afforded to those incarcerated there, many of whom are serving lengthy sentences for serious crimes. Where do they strike the balance between rehabilitation and punishment, I ask?
“Our mission statement is what we live by in here,” says Eddie. That mission statement, according to the Irish Prison Service, aims to: provide safe and secure custody, dignity of care, and rehabilitation to prisoners for safer communities.
“We protect society, yes, and the people who are sentenced through the courts, we have to keep them in safe custody, treat them with dignity and respect and provide rehabilitative programmes for them.
“We are a long time in this business and we know that a lot of prisoners don’t go down the rehabilitation path, it is not what they want. Crime is a lifestyle for them. Our objective is to try to put training programmes in place, provide employment opportunities, and provide for their health and wellbeing needs.
“The parkrun really is a rehabilitation tool and people in the community may see it as a leisure activity but in here, for us, it is very much about getting the prisoners’ minds in a positive place.”
Donncha adds: “The punishment for the prisoners is being sent here by the courts. We are here to send the prisoners back out as better people and initiatives like parkrun help us to do that.”
Parkrun alone will not provide full rehabilitation, it is agreed, but it is one important component of the suite of rehabilitative programmes on offer in Mountjoy Prison, part of which involves an ongoing initiative with Dublin footballer, Philly McMahon who recently delivered a first-ever Tedx talk to Mountjoy prisoners.
A public perspective
Eoin Fegan participated in Progression parkrun last October. Here, he shares his experience:
“I love to visit different parkruns around Ireland and meet with the local runners who take part every week. I find it is a great way to meet people from the local communities and chat. From Dungloe in Donegal to Castlehaven in Cork there is a clear common sense of pleasure that runners get from parkrun. This is no different in the Progression parkrun. We received a very warm welcome, with handshakes all around. We chatted about the normal things runners chat about before a run – the difficulty of the Mountjoy course, with its many corners and a slight uphill that needed to be tackled seven times! The runners took great pride in the times they were running, chatting about the training they put in in the gym when possible during the week and how it was paying off with the improvement in times. And, importantly, it gave them an element of focus. Many told me of their determination to keep up running and visiting parkruns upon their release.”
At what cost?
Addressing a question on the cost of running the Progression parkrun, Eddie says that the prisoners essentially pay for it themselves. The initial start-up cost was €3,000, paid for through the Prisoner Assist Programme Fund, which is funded by profits from the prison tuck shop.
“Prisoners buy toiletries and groceries in the prison tuck shop and the profits of the shop go back into that fund to support programmes for prisoners,” explains Eddie.
“So, it didn’t and doesn’t cost the State anything because the prisoners’ own money finances it in a roundabout way. When you think about gyms and gym equipment, these things cost huge money. This initiative costs no money – all it costs is energy and a bit of time.”
Currently, according to parkrun HQ, across Ireland and the UK, there are 14 live prison parkrun events:
- One in a category B prison, for prisoners who don’t require maximum security, but for whom escape needs to be made very difficult;
- Eight in a category C prison, which includes, Progression parkrun in Mountjoy, for prisoners those who can’t be trusted in open conditions but who are unlikely to try to escape;
- Three in a category D prison, which is for prisoners who are trusted enough to wander freely within the prison but must show up for several daily roll calls;
- Two in young offenders’ institutes; and
- Two more are confirmed to start in the future, parkrun has confirmed.