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Starting an Inmate Running Group
By Joe W. Hatcher, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology
Published: 11/16/2009

Running people Editors Note: Corrections.com author Joe W Hatcher, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology at Ripon College and is spending a year in the Wisconsin DOC as a Psychology Intern.

Everybody knows that getting physical exercise is a good idea. In fact, not only does regular exercise lead to increased physical fitness, it also leads to more positive moods and even sharper thinking. If you combined this idea with a program that had inmates set a lofty exercise goal and reach that goal by using self-discipline and a series of readings that talked about how to do hard things, you would have a good description of the Goal-Setting Running Groups that I have been leading at two correctional institutions in Wisconsin.

The idea came from a Theories of Motivation class I taught at the college where I work. I had students train for a half-marathon (13.1 miles) or a 10K (about 6 miles) as part of class that dealt with “how to do hard things”. Such training requires a graduated plan that requires self-discipline and the ability to persevere when things are tough, but which begins at a level that is doable and increases slowly enough for the body to adjust. Many college students found the experience not only rewarding but also a great learning experience, in that their issues of procrastination and rationalization became clearer to them during training.

During my internship with the Wisconsin DOC this last year, I wondered if the same type of program could work with inmates. The inmate life can be one with few legitimate positives, after all. Inmates can have relatively little to feel good about while incarcerated, after all. It would seem that developing an ability to set difficult goals and achieve them could be something that inmates could legitimately take pride in, and could then potentially generalize what they learned to other parts of life inside and outside the institution.

I began with one group at a men’s institution, and three different groups at a women’s institution. Staff at each institution were supportive, and inmate interest was initially high. The ten-week program offered inmates different schedules based on their initial levels of fitness. One plan had inmates who could run two miles at the outset working up to ten miles in ten weeks; another had inmates who could walk 1/3 of a mile finish a goal of walking six miles at the end of ten weeks, with other plans in between those two. Thus, everyone could have a challenging experience, no matter what their initial level of fitness.

Groups began fairly large, and rapidly shrank to less than half their initial size, as inmates dropped out of the group during the first few weeks. In each of the groups, however, few inmates dropped out after week three, and about thirty percent finished the schedule. Weekly meetings were used to talk about how to avoid injuries, to collect weekly logs to monitor progress, to talk about readings with titles like “What Do You Tell Yourself to Make It Okay?” and “How to Do Hard Things”, and watch videos like The Spirit of the Marathon, which follows six people as they prepare for the Chicago Marathon, and Race for the Soul, which covered the Western States 100 mile race. Inmates found the videos interesting and inspirational, and we had good conversations about what they were learning in the group and how they could apply these lessons to their lives inside and outside the institution.

I came from a meeting this morning of my second Running Group at the male institution, and was struck by how positive the group had become. The twelve men who have made it to week five (out of 24 that started) all know each other by now, and are very supportive of each other. We talked about how procrastination was a problem for several, and they each recognized that this was a problem in other parts of their lives as well. The inmates talked about the positive things they told themselves to get through the difficult times of running, and how they felt a sense of accomplishment already and were excited about going longer distances. The group smiled and laughed a lot, and appeared to enjoy being at our meeting, which is not always my experience with other types of groups.

My experience in the groups has been very positive. I have been thanked for starting the group, and inmates routinely make positive comments in their logs. One female inmate wrote that she had noticed that every excuse she made not to run was one she had used in her criminal life. Inmates also generally report sleeping better and losing weight, with two inmates losing more than twenty pounds. And they certainly report a sense of pride in what they can do. One of our mantras in the group is “Who sets your limits?”, and inmates have told me they often use that in conversations with each other.

Yes, I am a runner myself. I had never run at all in my own life, but started at age 50 and have run three marathons now. I will say that I have learned many of the things that the inmates are learning about how to do hard things, and yes, I have used them in my own life as well, as I am encouraging them to do. If anyone is interested in further information or in starting up such a group yourself, feel free to contact me at hatcherj@ripon.edu.

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