Having become a global phenomenon, the parkrun is now playing a positive part in the rehabilitation of offenders. PETER BARRON goes inside a North-East jail to run alongside a group of prisoners

IT’S a frosty Saturday morning, with a fiery sunrise over the distant hills, and I’m in prison. My sentence? To run six laps of the football field.

At precisely 9am on most other Saturdays, I’d be enjoying the 93-acre freedom of Darlington’s South Park, alongside hundreds of other parkrunners.

But today, it’s a parkrun with a difference. This one is taking place inside HM Kirklevington Grange Prison, on the edge of Yarm. My fellow runners are ten prisoners, plus a small group of visitors from Bedale and Aiskew Runners athletics club.

As outsiders, we've all been signed in, having been asked for evidence of identification, left our phones and digital fitness trackers in our cars, and there’s a smiling, friendly welcome from the huddle of awaiting prisoners.

“How you doin’ mate? Looking forward to this?” smiles Shaun, one of the prisoners, as he limbers up next to the greenhouse, which serves as the start and finish.

It’s 17 years since the first parkrun took place, with just 13 runners, in Bushy Park, South London. Today, there are more than three million participants: running, jogging and walking five kilometres at more than 2,000 locations, in 23 countries, across five continents.

The public health initiative found its way into jails in 2017, when the first prison parkrun took place at HMP Haverigg, in Cumbria. Now, more than 20 UK prisons stage a weekly parkrun, with more than 4,000 prisoners taking part.

The Kirklevington parkrun was launched two and a half years ago, and this is the 64th time it’s been held within the prison grounds.

As the parkrun’s regional event ambassador for the North-East, Pete Richardson helped map out the course, and was instrumental in getting the event up and running.

Pete’s done 223 parkruns at 37 locations, but insists Kirklevington is his favourite: “Whenever I come here, I go away feeling uplifted,” he says. “The enthusiasm of those taking part blows me away.”

As the outsiders join the insiders at the start, we’re given six coloured wristbands – each bearing the words Never give up – and we’re instructed to discard them one by one to help keep track of the laps.

The prison’s Physical Education Officer, Liam Chapman, gives us the countdown and we’re off. I know my place, and it’s towards the back. More tortoise than hare, the aim is just to get round the six laps that are run in between the touchline of the soggy pitch and the towering perimeter fencing.

I’m soon lapped by the front-runners but, as with all parkruns, it’s not a race, and there’s no shortage of encouragement. “Keep going, mate,” shouts Shaun as he passes, white wisps of breath rising into the December air. “You can do this.”

I’m tempted to stop after three laps but the message repeated on my wristbands persuades me otherwise.

As I splutter up the final incline, all the prisoners – those who’ve run and others who’ve volunteered as helpers – are waiting to clap me home, and I find the display of camaraderie surprisingly moving.

“Alright?” nods James once I've got by breath back. He's served four and a half years, has another two and a half to go, and the parkrun is the highlight of his week. He trains for it in the prison gym every day.

“It’s something to focus on – it keeps you sane,” he explains. “It’s like being in the real world, with real people. It’s half an hour of freedom.”

Shaun joins in the conversation, asking if I’ve done other parkruns. When I tell him I’m a regular at another nearby event on the outside, his face lights up. “That’s where I’m from,” he replies. “I’ve got another four weeks to do and, when I get out, I’ll be signing up. See you there.”

With that, their time’s up. Shaun and the other inmates are heading back to their normal routines, and to run down the clock on another day in prison. “Cheers for coming in,” shouts Shaun, looking back over his shoulder.

Back outside the main gate, it’s tradition for the parkrun officials and visitors to meet for breakfast in a café near the car park, while the times are collated and posted online under pseudonyms.

“Like lots of people, I used to have a jaundiced view of prisons, but coming here has completely changed that,” says Pete Richardson over tea and a bacon butty.

“It means so much to them, and they’re constantly working to improve their times, not just in the gym, but by changing what they eat and drink.

“One of the lads had his first home visit recently, and he did his local parkrun while he was out.”

Liam Chapman, our starter, has been in the prison service for 17 years, and a PE officer at Kirklevington for the past five. He’s a passionate advocate of the parkrun.

“It provides opportunities to improve physically and mentally, but also to have positive connections with other people,” he says. “Having visitors coming in is a big part of helping them prepare for life after prison.”

Amanda Wilkinson, parkrun events support ambassador, is busy finalising the finishing times. Employed by the Police and Crime Commissioner, she helped establish the Kirklevington run and volunteers every Saturday.

“Everyone’s here for a reason, we know that, but it’s about putting structures in place, and there’s no doubt the parkrun plays a massive part in rehabilitation," she says.

“There are ex-military, some with post-traumatic stress, and others with awful backstories from their childhood. The parkrun is a great way not just to be healthy but to forge friendships.

“I get emotional when I see that one of the lads is doing a parkrun after they’ve left prison – it shows the continuing value of what we’ve been doing.”

Ultimately, the aim is to reduce the cycle of reoffending – to stop criminals from running in circles back to the prison.

Before the pandemic struck, a family parkrun had also been started at Kirklevington, allowing prisoners to run with one family member. That had to stop due to Covid restrictions, but it will be reintroduced further down the line.

Talks were also at an advanced stage about starting a parkrun at a second North-East prison – Holme House, near Stockton. Covid again got in the way, but the discussions will resume as soon as possible.

“We all know the benefits of the parkrun movement – for both physical and mental health – but that’s magnified ten times in prison, so we need to keep going,” says Pete Richardson as we pack up to go home to our families.

For the record, I completed the course in 27 minutes, 18 seconds. It’s outside of my personal best, but I’m glad I’ve done my time.

  • Note: This article is based on a visit that took place before safety measures were put in place in response to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.