The outdoor exercise yard of the Oregon State Penitentiary looks exactly like a movie set. The wide outdoor space is surrounded by 25-foot-high concrete walls and razor-wire fencing, but it's still one of the few spots in the penitentiary where you can feel the sun on your skin or get a good view of the sky. It's the platonic ideal of a prison yard.I came here to run a 5k as part of OSP's annual racing series, which invites the public to race alongside incarcerated male convicts. The prison's running program was started in the 1970s with the support of the late Steven Prefontaine, an Olympic runner who was one of the state's most revered athletes at the time. Today, it's among the prison's most popular programs, and inmates interested in participating often wait years for spots to open up. In the past few years, it's attracted an increasing number of outside runners as well; since only 20 outsiders are allowed per race, those spots fill up quickly, too.
After a series of security checks that led us deeper into the prison, a guard took me and my fellow runners out onto the yard. An inmate with a camera mounted on a tripod beckoned me over for my official race portrait. "Do you want the guard tower in the background?" he asked, nodding up to a turret staffed with armed guards ready to shoot, as if I were visiting a tourist attraction instead of Oregon's only maximum-security penitentiary. Of course I wanted the tower behind me.The next few minutes were a blur of exchanging brief pleasantries with inmates—one of whom introduced me to Felix, the resident blue heeler mutt who'd been brought in to chase geese off the yard and had since become the penitentiary's de facto therapy dog. An inmate handed out official racing bibs with the words "RUN FOR YOUR LIFE" emblazoned below our numbers. After crowding on the bleachers for a group photo, it was time to start the race: nine and a half laps around the yard for a 5k and double that for a 10k.
I started somewhere in the middle, not knowing how I—a casual runner on a good day—would fare against a group of men who trained regularly. Although I'd been instructed to wear modest clothing (I even wore shorts over my running leggings), the inmates had no such restrictions; plenty ran shirtless, tatted up with spider webs on their elbows and telltale teardrops next to their eyes. One had the words "Fuck the police" emblazoned across his chest. A few inmates resembled suburban grandpas, puffing along the track slowly and T-shirts glued to their backs with Rorschach-like sweat stains. I later learned that the geriatric prison population was among the fastest-growing segments of incarcerated adults, owing largely to minimum mandatory sentencing programs.
Round the track we went, circling past a seemingly neglected mini-golf course alongside a row of dilapidated pay phone booths. We continued past an outdoor fitness area full of old weight machines and out through a gate where inmate volunteers cheered us on, offering tiny Dixie cups full of Gatorade or water as we ran past. Old-school hip-hop and grunge tracks blared over the prison sound system, interrupted occasionally by commentary from a pair of inmates who'd taken on MC duties.Some of the sportier inmates sped around the inside of the track, shouting out encouragements to me and their fellow running-club members as they passed. I'd run a handful of races in the past, but until this race, I'd never encountered such an encouraging, positive, and polite group of fellow runners. The fact that we were behind bars—that this was a distraction that offered these men some respite from the dire situation that is long-term incarceration—had temporarily escaped my mind.The finish line was similarly jovial, as inmates, outsiders, and guards chatted casually over sports drinks and bananas. Some opened up about what life was like inside, while others made small talk about music and TV. I learned about their daily lives, in which they work for pennies at various prison enterprises ranging from a furniture shop to an inbound call center; most of the inmates I spoke to worked for an enormous laundry facility, which is the state's second-largest. I asked what they knew of the Internet; one guy told me he'd never used a computer, while another said he'd heard rumors that the prison was being considered for a pilot program that might allow them to stream shows from Netflix.As we chatted, the inmates headed off to shower and get on with their lives in prison. It seemed very casual, and nobody's movement seemed strictly controlled. A guard led me and my fellow outsiders back through a series of gated chambers that eventually spat us back out into the outside world—back to a freedom that most of us are just one poor choice away from losing.Follow Margot Bigg on Twitter.