Freedom run: Sport programs in prison aim to end recidivism

Markelle Taylor, San Quentin Prison, San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club
Markelle Taylor finishes a race inside San Quentin prison. Taylor went on to race the 2019 Boston Marathon a little over a month after being released on parole. (Photo courtesy Frank Ruona)

Markelle Taylor finished the 2019 Boston Marathon in 3 hours, 3 minutes, 52 seconds, blistering fast for a 46-year-old man who did all of his training on a quarter-mile track of asphalt, gravel and dirt with six 90-degree turns. Weeks before, on March 2, 2019, Taylor was released on parole from San Quentin State Prison in California after serving 17 years and 7 months after being found guilty of second-degree murder. 

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Prisons around the world are seeking ways to reduce the recidivism rate and sport programs ranging from marathons to rugby, which teach resilience, teamwork and self-esteem, might be the answer.

Some prisons are trying to reduce recidivism by offering organized sports programs. These programs go beyond one or two hours of daily recreation by introducing volunteer coaches from outside the prisons, as well as rules to remain in the program. Through sports such as baseball, running and rugby, inmates are finding structure, learning social skills and building self-esteem. Taylor found his speed and inner strength while training with the San Quentin 1,000 Mile Running Club.

At the end of 2017, 1,489,363 prisoners were in custody in state and federal prisons in the United States. Once these inmates are released from prison, they are likely to reoffend and find themselves back in custody. Eighty-three percent of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once during the nine years following their release, and 44% were arrested during their first year after release.

High recidivism rates are not limited to the United States. Between 2016 and 2017, 48.3% of adults and 64.9% of juveniles released from custody reoffended within one year in England and Wales.

Through running, Taylor said he learned he is “a work in progress and there’s always room for improvement.” He said: “People that run distance because of what they go through, and the pain that they sometimes suffer running distance, and training to run distance, and just never giving up, it makes you humble. It makes you look at things differently and put them in perspective, have more empathy, and compassion, and understanding.”

Although he ran cross country and track in high school, Taylor was not interested in running when he first arrived in San Quentin seven years ago. He did not begin running until a friend of his took his own life after his fourth or fifth parole denial. At first, Taylor ran on his own as a tribute to his friend, but another friend eventually convinced him to join the running club.

San Quentin prison, San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club
Prisoners involved in the San Quentin 1,000 Mile Running Club pose after a practice. (Photo courtesy Frank Ruona)

The 1000 Mile Running Club began in 2005 when Laura Bowman, a teacher at the prison, founded the club and invited Frank Ruona to coach the runners. Ruona was the head coach at Marin County’s Tamalpa Runners, and he initially was the only volunteer at the program. Ruona believed he could help inmates become healthier.

Today, he has about 10 volunteers helping him on a regular basis. They run evening workouts every other Monday and races on one Friday per month on the prison track. Ruona also holds informal workouts on most of the Fridays when they aren’t holding races.

Ruona still coaches Taylor, who has joined the Tamalpa Runners. He helped Taylor get a job at the construction company Ruona retired from. Another former San Quentin runner works at the construction company with Taylor. About 10 more are still in the Bay Area and try to get together for runs a couple of times a year. Five former San Quentin runners ran in the Dipsea Race in June, and Tamalpa Runners paid their entry fees. “What I’ve found is that if the guys have some kind of support system when they come out, they do very well,” Ruona said.

“People that run distance because of what they go through, and the pain that they sometimes suffer running distance, and training to run distance, and just never giving up, it makes you humble. It makes you look at things differently and put them in perspective, have more empathy, and compassion, and understanding.” – Markelle Taylor, former prisoner and member of the San Quentin 1000 Mile Running Club

Organized sports have a long history in U.S. prisons. Fans of the classic 1974 movie “The Longest Yard,” starring Burt Reynolds, might think the story of a prisoner football team is pure fantasy, but Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York fielded the Sing Sing Black Sheep football team in the 1930s. As early as 1912, prisoners played baseball at Atlanta’s Federal Penitentiary, and other baseball prison programs soon sprang up at Sing Sing and San Quentin in California. The Sing Sing baseball team even played an exhibition against the 1929 New York Yankees team that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Since 1931, prison rodeos have entertained inmates and the general public. The Texas Prison Rodeo was held in Huntsville, Texas, from 1931 until 1986, but ended due to budgetary concerns. The Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary opened in 1965 and is still running. It has grown so popular the prison built a 10,000 seat arena in 2000.

Prisoners have been running in prisons long before the 1000 Mile Club formed. Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Marathon, started the first and only USA Track & Field sanctioned running club inside a prison at Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts in the 1980s. His association with the prison started on June 14, 1980, when McGillivray was the only non-inmate to run an 8-mile race against 20 to 30 inmates.

McGillivray kept coming back, organizing three to four more 10Ks and a marathon at the prison involving outsiders and inmates. Thirty to 40 inmates paid a registration fee to officially register the club with USATF, but the prison administration became suspicious of the club and shut it down after about five or six years. Even though McGillivray received criticism for helping prisoners, he said, “My theory is this: Some of these guys are going to get out, and I’d rather have them better on the way out than they were on the way in.”

Runners get ready for the start of a six mile run at San Quentin State Prison. (Photo courtesy Frank Ruona)
Larry F., Markelle Taylor and Lorinzo H are on the start line for the San Quentin State Prison 2016 marathon (Photo courtesy Frank Ruona)
Steve B., Tommy W. and Troy D participate in a San Quentin State Prison workout. (Photo courtesy Frank Ruona)
Inmates and coaches participate in an evening workout at San Quentin State Prison in 2017.  (Photos courtesy Frank Ruona)
Youthful offenders in the Feltham Young Offenders Institution in South West London listen in to instruction before playing rugby as part of the 3Pillars Project. (Photo courtesy 3Pillars Project)
Athletes run through drills as part of the 3Pillars Project. In addition to time on the athletic field, the project provides mentors who develop action plans with participants, conduct anger management discussions and leadership coaching, assist with CV writing, and discuss course work and life in general. (Photo courtesy 3Pillars Project)
An inmate carries the American Flag before the start of Angola Prison Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary in 2014 in Angola, Louisiana. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Inmates compete in "Convict Poker" during the Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 2014 in Angola, Louisiana. During this event, four inmates are seated at a poker table as a bull is released. The last man seated in his chair wins. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Inmates compete in "Convict Poker" during the Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary on April 27, 2014 in Angola, Louisiana. During this event, four inmates are seated at a poker table as a bull is released. The last man seated in his chair wins. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
An inmate is struck by a bull in "Guts & Glory" during the Angola Prison Rodeo at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 2014 in Angola, Louisiana. During this event, inmates try to grab a poker chip from between a bull's eyes for a prize of $500. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Mike Crofts, CEO of the London-based 3Pillars Project, agrees. “Releasing mentally healthy citizens is beneficial for all of us,” he explained. The 3Pillars Project is an intensive 8-week rugby program offered in five British prisons. The program uses a holistic approach to assist inmates by providing mentors who develop action plans with participants, conduct anger management discussions and leadership coaching, assist with CV writing, and discuss course work and life in general.

Crofts, an officer in the British Army for eight years, founded the program after volunteering as a rugby coach at the Feltham Young Offenders Institution in South West London. The youth prison holds offenders between the ages of 15 and 21. Crofts saw potential where others might have found despair. He said, “I felt that, if given the right mentoring and development, they could achieve as much as some of the fantastic young men I had served in Afghanistan with.”

The 3Pillars Project teaches leadership and is demanding of its participants.

“The sense of pride, unity, and self-worth that the young men display after playing in a match together is unrivaled. Some of them have never been accepted onto teams before.” – Mike Crofts, former British Army officer and founder of 3Pillars Project

“We don’t turn anybody away, but we do set very high standards for all participants,” Crofts said. “They love the idea that we demand more and believe in them to achieve.” Course graduates have the opportunity to serve as assistant coaches and train other participants while they are still in custody. One young man completed the first course in 2016 and worked for the program on day-release from an open prison. He is now released and living with his family, and the 3Pillars program continues to support him by employing him as a coach. 

The program culminates in a rugby match against staff or an outside team, sometimes both, and it is much more than a fun game for the participants. “The sense of pride, unity, and self-worth that the young men display after playing in a match together is unrivaled,” Crofts said. “Some of them have never been accepted onto teams before.”

The benefits of prison sports are not limited to prisoners, according to Michael Kremer, director and head coach of the San Quentin Baseball Program. Unlike many prison sports programs, San Quentin’s baseball team regularly plays home games against outside teams. Kremer’s first experience with San Quentin’s team was as a player for an outside team in 2015. He describes it as “a total one-of-a-kind experience” that allowed him to use baseball “as a bond to connect with people that I otherwise would’ve had no link to.”

Kremer does not believe his experience as a player was unique. “There’s a really great give and take between inmates and outsiders,” he said. “The outsiders that come in have an even more transformational experience from the baseball program. The opportunity for the outside world to have contact and put faces to people who are behind bars and interact with them and realize they are not monsters really could have a fundamental impact on people in terms of how they think about criminal justice issues or the prison system.”

“The opportunity for the outside world to have contact and put faces to people who are behind bars and interact with them and realize they are not monsters really could have a fundamental impact on people in terms of how they think about criminal justice issues or the prison system.” – Michael Kremer, director and head coach of the San Quentin baseball program

Kremer also sees baseball’s benefits for his San Quentin players, such as connecting them with the outside world and taking them out of the mindset of just surviving prison. He believes forming relationships with people who aren’t tainted by prison encourages prosocial behavior for his players. Baseball also gives his players hope and a reason to obey prison rules.

“There’s a lot of power in players having something to strive for and to hope for, and baseball is a privilege for these guys,” Kremer said. “They know that they have to behave well and stay out of trouble in order to participate in the program. It gives them an element of commitment and positivity and hope that they otherwise might not have in what can be a pretty bleak setting inside of a prison.”

Organized prison sports also can reduce racial tensions. Kremer said, “On the baseball diamond, racial lines totally go away,” and inmates can form friendships across racial lines that would be unlikely elsewhere in prison where certain areas are allocated to specific races.

Taylor never saw any racial animosity during his time with the 1000 Mile Club, and Ruona agrees. “We’ve got roughly 30% Caucasian, 30% black, 30% Hispanic, and then the other 10% are Asian, Arabic, and other races. They all get along well. They seem to support each other,” said Ruona. 

3Pillars Project, rugby, Feltham Young Offenders Institution
Young offenders in Feltham Young Offenders Institution in South West London participate in rugby practice. The 3Pillars Project is an intensive 8-week rugby program that uses a holistic approach to assist inmates by providing mentors who develop action plans with participants, conduct anger management discussions and leadership coaching, assist with CV writing, and discuss course work and life in general. (Photo courtesy 3Pillars Project)

Cleo Cloman requested a transfer to San Quentin after 15 years in prison because he heard it had a baseball team. He missed the sport his father introduced him to at age 5 and that he played through high school. Baseball helped Cloman find a sense of purpose again.

 “Baseball is my passion,” Cloman said. “Baseball is a tool. Baseball is my love. Baseball is my understanding. Baseball is my peace. And I know I find that between the foul lines.”

After six years at San Quentin, Cloman was released on parole in May 2017 and has been working as a plumber for a year. He has stayed out of trouble and credits his experience playing baseball in prison as a key to his success.

 “In prison, our object was to go home, but in order to go home you had to know how to deal with reality at home,” Cloman said. “We had to check ourselves and learn how to be different, and baseball taught me how to do that.”

 “In prison, our object was to go home, but in order to go home you had to know how to deal with reality at home. We had to check ourselves and learn how to be different, and baseball taught me how to do that.” – Cleo Cloman, former San Quentin prisoner

Although there is limited empirical evidence of a direct causal relationship between prison sport participation and recidivism rates, Cloman’s success during the last two years appears the norm for the San Quentin runners and baseball players.

Kremer said none of the six or seven baseball players who have been released in the four years he has been involved with the baseball program have reoffended.

Ruona has seen similar success during his 14 years with the 1000 Mile Club. He knows of only one former runner who is back in prison (and happens to be running at San Quentin again). “We really did not have a lot of guys being released for the first 7 or 8 years that I was coaching the Club. Recently, the numbers have increased substantially,” Ruona said. “I know of at least 30 guys who have been released and are still out of prison as far as I know.”

Although it’s only been a few months since his release, Taylor is thankful the running community outside of prison is as welcoming as the 1000 Mile Club.

“The running community is beautiful,” Taylor said. “I don’t feel no judgment, nothing. We just run. Everybody is accepted. You want to run, we gonna have fun. Let’s run.”

Jeff Burtka is a freelance writer based in metro Detroit. You can read more of his work here.

Editor’s note: The Global Sport Institute tracks the social justice activities of NFL teams. Check out our season-ending report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of studies examining the causal relationship between youth sport reduction and recidivism rates.

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