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Prison Run Puts Inmates And Outsiders On The Same Track

There are many outdoor running events in Oregon. Add to that list a  “prison run.” It’s held monthly from spring through fall at the maximum-security prison in Salem. It’s a rare chance for prisoners and outsiders to connect.

In a dead heat, two runners sprint to the finish line. Kayla Moothart crosses first.

Rebecca Gundle sits with an inmate after the race.

Rebecca Gundle sits with an inmate after the race.

Sam Gehrke

She beats her opponent by one second.

“When I felt this guy coming up behind me, I was like, there’s no way. I’m taking him in,” Moothart said after the race.

She is one of around twenty “outside” citizens who have come to race with about a hundred inmates. The runner trailing her to cross the finish line is an inmate at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. Runners choose between a 10k or a 5k — either 9 or 18 laps around the prison’s recreational yard.

Todd Gulley is the running program coordinator at the prison. He’s also an inmate.

“I have a unique environment to come in, and run and compete,” Gulley said.

There are many outdoor running events in Oregon. Add to that list a  “prison run.” It’s held monthly from spring through fall at the maximum-security prison in Salem.

Inmates in the running program are also allowed extra time on the yard to train. Some even skip lunch to squeeze in a few more miles.

Gulley knows people are curious about what goes on in prison. With the races, he invites people to come find out.

“We’re programming. We’re going to college. We’re running races. We are working jobs.”

The outside runners are only inside prison for about two hours. But Gulley hopes that’s long enough to expose them to reality inside the walls.

“They bring the message with them when they come in here and run with us: ‘Hey, I was in there. What was it like?’ These are normal people. You wouldn’t know the difference if they weren’t wearing blue,” Gulley says.

Inmates race in blue shirts. Outside runners wear orange vests. The two colors blend together on the track and at the water stations.

Kayla Moothart listens to instructions before the race.

Kayla Moothart listens to instructions before the race.

Sam Gehrke

It’s not easy for inmates to get into the running program. The first requirement is 18 months clear conduct.  Only 150 inmates can participate at a time. The institution houses more than 2,000. Wait time to get in the program is about four years.

Program coordinator Todd Gulley says he wishes there were resources so that every inmate with the motivation and commitment to run could join.

“The people that have earned the right, they covet it.  And it’s one of the places in the prison where there’s never problems. You’ll never see fights on this turnout, you’ll never see conflicts beyond, ‘Hey, I’m just not going to talk to you right now.’ ”

Robert Goggin has been in prison for 15 years. He thinks a lot of inmates don’t run because it’s easy to be lazy.

“In here, you have the option of sitting back and doing nothing, or doing something positive. I think that in here, the drive for staying in shape was pretty extreme,” Goggin said.

Goggin used to compete with his friends, running 17-minute 5k’s around this track. But now, it’s more about staying fit, and working through stress.

“Running around this track, chasing whatever you’re chasing, there is a way of putting it behind you.”

Michael Eric Nitchke greets runners before the race.

Michael Eric Nitchke greets runners before the race.

Sam Gehrke

Steve Prefontaine, the famed Olympic runner from Oregon, started the prison running program in the 1970s.  He used to give seminars to inmates about how running can help give a sense of mental stability.

Michael Eric Nitchke has been in prison since 1997. He says he runs every day.

“You need to replace something positive for the negatives in your life,” Nitchke says.

Nitchke crashed a vehicle after a high speed chase, while he was high on meth and marijuana. The crash killed someone. He says running helped him overcome his problems with addiction. His favorite time to run is when it’s windy, rainy and nasty outside.

“I love running on those days. It just makes me feel different,” Nitchke says.

Prefontaine died in a car crash in 1975. The running program continued, but involvement from outside runners dwindled. But recently, there’s been more interest from outside participants.

At a recent race, there are no sports drinks, no post-race snacks, no high-tech timing chips. The prisoners wear shoes they buy from the canteen. They run while listening to music on outdated MP3 players they also purchase there. Each song costs 75 cents more than the iTunes price.

The mood today is positive. Inmates thank the visitors for coming. The first-place outside runner, Kayla Moothart, says she came partly because her younger brother’s in prison in Alaska.

“I feel like this brings me nearer to him in a way. It gives me an experience to understand how he lives every day,” Moothart said.

There are four races left this year, including one half marathon. An entry form for future runs is available here.

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There are many outdoor running events in Oregon. Add to that list a  “prison run." It's held monthly from spring through fall at the maximum-security prison in Salem.