Picture This - Leading in Prison
I am part of a group which volunteers at a local women's prison to support their running program.
The volunteer arrangement started with a few runners visiting the prison to talk about running and evolved into formal events.
Some of these events include a graduation 5K after each session, annual participation in their Heart Walk and Breast Cancer efforts, and even a marathon that involved 91 laps around the recreational field.
Many of the activities I do have a sizable social media component. If I visit a legislator's office for Shot At Life, I am expected to post pictures to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and my blog. Because I am a Fitfluential Ambassador and Charity Miles All Star, every workout gets its companion image on social media.
Although a staff person takes pictures of the races at prison and those pictures are shared publicly, much of our work is not preserved for posterity. Whether there are pictures or not, the leadership behind that work is as fueled by dedication and girded by organization as any I have ever seen. Three different types of leaders contribute:
People Who Are Paid To Lead
The prison doesn't have to have a running program. The program started because one warden, who was a runner himself, believed that running would benefit the inmates. Beyond the warden, staff members expend effort far above the minimum required to help us civilians clear background checks and receive training. They handle the logistical challenges of having 15-20 civilians on the premises professionally and cheerfully.
They could say why bother and keep on doing the minimum required of their work and collecting paychecks. Instead, they share a commitment to fulfilling the institution's mission, to helping the women deal with life while they are completing their sentences and to helping the women prepare for life on the outside.
People Who Lead One Another
In almost three years of working with the prison running group, I have seen firsthand how women who have been stripped of whatever titles they held prior to their incarceration make it their business to empower others.
Women who have experience in the running group encourage those who are hesitant to take the first step. Women who have excellent organizational skills sit at a table in the full sun checking off laps of marathoners in order to provide support. Faster runners go back to encourage slower runners through the finish line.
People Who Volunteer To Help
As I have watched Mary Jean, my friend and fellow runner who coordinates our efforts, recruit runners to volunteer and liaise with prison staff to organize our activities, I have seen the power of persistence.
She has set the tone, making the statement: "show up at 6:30am for an hour of required training before our 7:30am 5K" sound almost pleasant. More importantly, she has been the link between the staff and the inmates, patiently working around bureaucratic hurdles and shepherding every interaction back to let's put one foot in front of another and run.
We don't have any pictures, for instance, of yesterday's visit where we informally spoke to 20 women in the running club. What we do have is the echoes in our heads of the woman who said, "I think I can do this" and her fellow inmate who said, "yes you can and we'll help you."
Three types of leadership, all taking place in an environment more commonly associated with punishment. Pictures are nice when we get them, but no one needs pictures to develop a richly rewarding takeaway.
I am torn between commenting on the “Least of These” ministry and the incisive leadership observations in your fascinating post … so I’ll do both.
The idea of a runner’s ministry for incarcerated folks is a great example of working with people in a challenging environment to build their self-esteem and prepare them for a better life. I have to admit I only thought of prison ministries as individual therapy sessions or group sessions where those who have much try to convince those who have little that they can do more. You have put sneakers on the ground with this one:).
Your astute observations of both the obvious and the “hidden” leaders in this situation should help all of us see leadership with and without titles or overt responsibilities wherever we are.
With regard to my own experiences, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the idea that “leadership is behavior, not title” long ago, so I am used to looking for the leaders within the group. My background in group dynamics tells me that we ignore the natural leaders within a group at our own risk, whether they lead for positive or negative results.
Thank you for the kind words, John. This is a topic on which I could write for days and days. This particular institution does a great job, in my opinion, with incorporating activities (like the running club). There is a Toastmasters group. There are multiple “traditional religion” type of ministries. Fitness, yoga, and book clubs. I don’t want to make it sound like a smorgasbord of “extras.” Ultimately, it is a place where people are fulfilling a debt they owe to society. However, they are still individuals/mothers/sisters/friends/daughters/etc. The women talk often of their plans once they leave, and I hope that these efforts make it more likely they will successfully transition to the outside world again (recidivism rates are high).
This is a heart-warming article. I’ve heard of gardening programs and poetry therapy conducted with prison populations. But running – I love it because athletic activity provides so many benefits that the women would otherwise be missing: Healthy workouts, but also the discipline and persistence necessary to complete a difficult workout or race, the team work that naturally evolves, and even the leadership aspect for a few. Great job! Thanks for sharing your work.
Annette, thank you for your comment. You captured the advantages perfectly! Running provides such a healthy outlet for the inmates. On an additional note, the whole experience is a reminder that it’s important to not get wrapped up in the “latest and greatest” shoes/clothes/gadgets for running. The shoes they have a very utilitarian to say the least. It’s a reminder to persevere even without bells and whistles!
I worked for a county jail for over 2 years and posted here about my observations:
I think these programs and ministry outreaches to help inmates have a second chance at life, and to possibly become leaders themselves, should not be overlooked. Yes, the recidivism rates may be discouraging, but for the ones that are successful at re-entry, it is so worth it.
Their paying a debt for their transgressions should also be combined with compassion to help. They must make the choice whether to change behaviors or not, but to neglect these programs to empower and encourage them is not in society’s best interest.
Great post that speaks to a passion of mine!
I didn’t know this was a passion of yours! I look forward to reading your post!
I love this post, Paula! What an amazing group!
Sorry for the delayed reaction, Margy, but I just saw this. Thanks for the comment — it is the best of experiences, for sure.