The people at Oregon State Penitentiary have an interesting way to rehabilitate offenders. Once monthly from spring through fall, the maximum-security institution hosts runners from the local community who compete alongside 150 eligible inmates in races behind the prison walls.
Since its inception during the 1970s through the efforts of Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, the annual program has given inmates a healthy outlet for their athletic and mental energies while simultaneously creating an environment where they can interact with everyday citizens as peers rather than offenders. There’s a four-year-long waiting list for inmates who want to participate, and they have to maintain 18 months of good conduct to make the list. Once in the program, they train hard and jealously protect their eligibility, effectively transforming their quarter-mile track into an oasis of peace in an otherwise violent place.
Runners from the community who venture behind the walls to meet these men express how natural it feels to run alongside them. As one recent participant said, “We were just people - just runners - and that’s exactly what these guys are hoping for an hour each month.”
I love stories like this. Among other things, Oregon's prison runs offer glimmers of hope in a bleak corrections landscape. While the majority of inmates waste away in American penal institutions, these runners are doing their time with a sense of purpose and renewed identity. They’ll emerge from prison feeling determined and optimistic, and they’ll hit the streets better equipped for the responsibilities of their reclaimed freedom.
The races offer glimmers of hope in a bleak corrections landscape.
But I also think these inmates have a lesson to teach all of us.
When I first learned about the Oregon prison run, I immediately thought of Paul. “Run to win!” he exhorts. “Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever.” Harnessing the imagery of the ancient Isthmian games, Paul paints a picture of the kind of dedicated self-discipline Christians happily undertake for the privilege of following after Jesus in the race of life. It seems like an especially appropriate metaphor for a story like this. Surely these inmates don’t run for the bragging rights of coming in first. After all, even when they do win a race, nothing really changes about their immediate circumstances. Ancient Olympians were paraded around their hometowns like heroes; victorious inmates return to their cells at the end of the day to be counted as offenders in custody.
No, I think these inmates run purely for the sake of being runners. Like the “free world” athletes who compete against them, they do it for the joy of the race and for the privilege of belonging to a community of like-minded individuals who understand the intrinsic reward of finishing the race well. Worldly distinctions evaporate in such an environment. It doesn’t matter whether the runner wears a blue prison uniform or an orange guest jersey. All are in the race together, pursuing the same goal.
Now I’m no athlete, but the peculiar passion that runners bring to their sport isn’t lost on me, and I hope to bring the same passion to my relationship with Christ. Like those guys behind bars, I never want to forget that the prize isn’t found in finishing first. It’s in being found worthy to run the race at all.