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Locked in, But Looking Out


David Yon, March 23, 2012

The Gadsden Correctional Facility appears through the windshield of our car about the same time as the tall water tower marking the town of Gretna.  This journey started when an email popped up on my screen from Traci Norris, Quality Control Coordinator, for the facility.  The warden at the prison, Sergio Molina, is an avid runner.  And he has this belief that, for at least some of the inmates, running can become a passion that can help them past drug addiction and other destructive behaviors. Not a magic bullet, but an effective aid.  So the prison has a running club.

Traci was looking for someone to talk to the members of the club.  The inmates are all women at this facility and she wanted a woman to lead the discussion.  I was pretty sure I knew someone who was willing to jump at the chance and so I asked Mary Jean, who took to the idea immediately and took charge of the event.  “Well, I think you and I will do fine, but don’t you think it would be great to reach out to someone considerably younger?” So she asked Elizabeth Stupi who also jumped on board right away. We had a team. 

As we pulled into the parking lot there was no doubt this was a prison. Tall iron fences were turned into insurmountable walls by the razor wire sitting on top.  The facility has around 1500 inmates divided among medium, minimum and community security levels.  The first question in my head was how could there be a running club here.  The second was just how safe were we.  But then we began to note the meticulous care taken with the grounds all around the prison, the gardens springing up along the sidewalks and buildings, growing with great success as a result of the horticulture classes, and Traci’s easy movements. 

Then we saw “the field,” maybe 600 meters around with a path beaten down near the fence that surrounded it. No shade.  This was the home turf of the Gadsden Correctional Facility running club.  And while I know I would dream of the trails of Lake Overstreet, Phipps and the Greenways if I were confined to running here, I also know I would, like the women here, make my way around the track as many times and as often as possible.  Clearly, this running path offers a way to look outside and to find the discipline necessary to transform a bad addiction, that landed many of the women in the running club in this prison, for a healthy one.

As start time for our presentation approached the chairs in the gym filled and more were brought in and again filled.  By the time we started nearly 50 women had gathered.  Once again I experienced how running breaks down barriers and brings people together.  We had barely gotten through Mary Jean’s introductions and opening presentation before hands started shooting up.  An hour and a half later we were still answering questions and sharing stories – all runners.  There was awe and clear respect as the women heard the details of Elizabeth’s 12 hour run.  They gobbled up Mary Jean’s advice about nutrition and pacing.  They laughed as I demonstrated a tired runner's form breaking down. At some point we looked up and one of the few empty chairs had been filled by the warden, a very content smile on his face.

One of the things these women really wanted was to know the distance of the loop around the field.  Yep, they are runners.  We have promised to go back and mark it for them.  And the warden, he wants to see the 12-week training session culminate in a 5K race, with members of the community invited to participate. 

There are over 102,000 inmates in Florida correctional facilities.  Last year 35,000 inmates were released and 34,000 admitted.  I know it won’t solve all the problems leading to these stats, but running programs are being used to help create good behaviors and integrate people back into the community.  I plan to run the upcoming 5K, glad for the chance to look out from a different view.