We all know how amazing parkrun is. This weekend gave us another example, possibly the best yet, of its transformational potential for so many different groups in society. We spent Saturday morning celebrating International Women’s day by running HMP Downview parkrun in Sutton.
As always the other parkrunners were enthusiastic and welcoming to us as visitors. What was different is that Downview parkrun takes place in HMP Downview women’s prison. Residents, staff and visitors, run, walk and volunteer alongside each other in order to deliver this event every week. The visit was a very uplifting experience with lots of positive energy around.
parkrun in prisons
There are more than twenty parkruns on the custodial estate in the UK. The first prison based parkrun was Black Combe parkrun which held its inaugural event in November 2017. The name referred to a prominent Hill visible from HMP Haverigg – a category C prison in Cumbria. An email sent to parkrun headquarters by Shane Spencer, the gym manager at Haverigg got the initiative underway. Soon after its inception other prisons followed.
Although there are formalities to observe prior to and on the day of the event, in general the prison parkruns are encouraging of visitors. Changing perceptions is an important part of the vision. Hopefully improving awareness and understanding on both sides.
But most importantly the aim is to improve the health and wellbeing of inmates in parkrun’s own unique way. Whether taking part in the event as a runner, walker or volunteer, parkrun can foster a sense of achievement, belonging and purpose. In addition the prisoners will have gained the experience of an activity that offers them a way back into the community when they leave.
Downview parkrun was established in October 2019 – the first in a women’s prison in the UK. Governor Natasha Wilson already knew the benefits of parkrun. She had been introduced to parkrun by a colleague some years previously and had experienced its value firsthand. As a result she was extremely enthusiastic when the idea to start one at Downview was put to her by the PE staff.
Natasha now runs regularly alongside inmates and other staff.
International Women’s Day weekend seemed an appropriate time to visit Downview. From the outset, being welcomed at the gates by a friendly member of staff, it was a very affirming experience.
Downview parkrun course
The Course at Downview is five laps on mixed terrain of concrete paths, gravel and grass. Taking in some of the prison grounds, the sports field and beautifully kept flower gardens, it twists and turns its way round the five kilometres. Being so compact gives plenty of opportunity for shouts of encouragement from other runners and volunteers. Though flat the sharp bends add a challenging element to the run.
Just as with every parkrun around the world Downview started with a briefing. Introductions were made, the course was outlined and there was lots of clapping. To use the Event Directors words ‘for that one hour on a Saturday morning we are all just parkrunners’.
There was the usual few minutes of cordial chaos as we organised ourselves into some sort of starting order and on the word ‘go’ we were off. Again, like at every parkrun around the world, each of us with our own motivation and reason for taking part. And each of us performing to our own ability.
Saturday saw a record number of participants at Downview parkrun. Fifty four runners and walkers completed the course. There were 25 first-timers at the event. Pembroke Athletica swelled their numbers by 11 and there were a handful of other visitors including a real parkrun celebrity Darren Wood. Darren has run the most parkruns of anyone in the world – Saturday’s run brought his total to a staggering 765. Seven runners obtained PB’s. Five runners need to remember their bar-codes in future!
After the run we had the traditional coffee with some delicious homemade ginger-bread ‘women’ and the usual debriefing of the performances – who ran well, who found it difficult and hopes for future achievements. The conversation was easy, interesting and respectful. Only too soon it was time to go.
We thoroughly enjoyed our morning at HMP Downview parkrun and hope to visit again in the not too distant future. Meanwhile thank you to our hosts and good luck with your future running.