Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 24 Feb 2003 21:37:03 -0500

Captive Audience

(Running Commentary 454 -- February 22nd, 2003)

This wasn't the usual crowd for one of my talks. For starters everyone was male, and no one arrived late, left early, fell asleep, or talked or ate during my program. The questions were numerous and perceptive.

Afterward I praised this group to my host. He said, "We have a true captive audience here."

Guy Hall is a runner himself. He's also manages the facility I visited. He is superintendent of the Santiam Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison in Salem, Oregon.

Santiam looks from the inside something like a dormitory at a low-budget college. But without looking very far, you see the high fences and uniformed officers.

Visitors can walk through the gates and past the officers, but inmates can't leave without some hard-won papers. The only place they can run is on the fifth-of-a-mile paved track.

Guy Hall started a running club among the inmates. Membership is now about 30, and nearly that full count came to my talk, then began lapping their familiar track.

I came to Santiam on Superintendent Hall's invitation, but at the urging of Dick Brown. The coach from Eugene advises the club on all running matters.

"Be prepared for good questions," Dick Brown had said during our drive to Salem. "They ask better ones than most groups on the outside."

A towering man named Ty said, "Most of the other guys in here think we runners are weird. They give us a hard time about it. How can we handle this?"

They know better than to react with violence. My reply: "It's not any different on the outside. Most people who don't run think runners are weird.

"If you have to be weird in some way, this is a good one. Take pride in being different."

A middle-aged man named David said, "One reason many of us are in here is that we have trouble making connections with people. Here we have this running group, but what happens when we get out? Where do we meet other runners?"

The subtext of his question: If he met runners, would they accept him if his history were known?

I assured David that he could blend easily with them, and as anonymously as he wished to remain. He could link up with other runners by running races, joining a club or visiting a running store to learn about group runs.

Runners are an accepting crowd. If David's record were known to them, it probably wouldn't matter to anyone he would care to know.

And if he wanted to keep his past quiet, that would be easy too. The subject of what someone does, or did in the past, seldom comes up during runs.

A scraggly bearded man named Wayne told me he'd recently started running. He worried what his wife might think of his new activity.

"She doesn't run," he said. "Do you think this might cause a problem between us?"

I asked him if they'd stayed close while he was here. Wayne smiled and said, "She has come to visit every weekend for all these years." I told him running isn't going to shake that degree of commitment.

The runners circled their five-laps-per-mile track as we visitors watched. Most of them lasted about a half-hour this day (though their star, John, sometimes stays on this track for two hours). As they left for their jobs, most stopped to thank us for coming.

One named Tony talked longer than the others, and so articulately that he could have been a visiting professor here. "I'll see you back in Eugene in a few months," he said. "I can hardly wait to take a run in the old neighborhood, where I can run more than 100 yards without taking a left turn."

It's not for me to forgive these men for what they did to get here, or to judge if their sentence was long enough or too long, or if it has rehabilitated them or not. That's for the legal system and the victims of their crimes to say.

All I can say after spending just two hours with these inmate-runners is that they struck me as a collection of regular guys who had made bad mistakes. They're paying for them every day.

Even in minimum-security they're far from free. They welcome visitors, then must watch us do what they can't: walk past the fence, later to run anytime and anywhere we want.

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