Running Behind Bars: They come from all over to run with inmates at state pen

Inmates and those on the outside (in orange) run together at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. (KATU Photo)

It seems like the last place you’d pick to go for a run is the state penitentiary, seeing it’s a place where they warn you when you check in there’s a chance you could be held hostage, and where you have to wear orange so you won’t get shot if a riot happens.

But eight times a year, men and women travel from around the country to the Oregon State Penitentiary to run with inmates.

Eileen Kuffner, a petite Portland woman, admits she was a little nervous at first, but that’s part of what drew her to the run behind bars.

“They give you that speech in the beginning about how, ‘We’re gonna try to keep you safe,' but there’s always a chance," said Kuffner.

Kuffner was all smiles as she stretched out with the inmates, many of whom are locked up for violent crimes, including rape and murder. They spent about 20 minutes chatting before their race started, as other inmates rushed around setting up the event.

The inmates take care of everything, including the music, the timekeeping and the play-by-play. They even hold fundraisers to buy the bananas they hand out after the race.

The running program got its start in the early 1970s, thanks in part to Oregon running legend Steve Prefontaine, who quietly visited the inmates and held seminars, turning them on to a much healthier addiction.

When we visited in early October, the club was holding its last race of the year, a 5k and 10k run concurrently. It's one of eight races scheduled every year, including a half marathon held in September. On this day, there were 15 outside runners and 68 inmates running. There are about 300 inmates in the running club. They need 18 months of perfect behavior to get in, and the waiting list is several years long.

"It's a great experience all around," said Les, a "lifer," who's been running around the OSP track for 20 years. Les spends much of his time on the track thinking about the crime that landed him in prison.

"You can't forget it. It's always going to be here," said Les. "It's important to me to keep it fresh, to be honest about it."

For many of the inmates, outside runners are the only visitors they see all year. They say race days help them feel "normal."

"It's a great opportunity to let them see there is a human element to people who have made poor choices," said Eric, an inmate who's been running since he was incarcerated in 1997.

"You get to talk to them, find out they've got the same struggles you have in many areas of your life," said Ron, who's up for parole in four years. "You find out you have things in common and we're not all that different. Our addresses are just different," Ron said.

The outside runners say once you run with the inmates, you'll keep coming back.

Steve Brown has been visiting the prison from New Hampshire at least once a year for the past 5 years. It's a family tradition. His father, track pioneer Dick Brown, coached the inmates for 20 years before he died in 2016.

"Wherever I am in the world, I get the schedule and I figure out when I can make it out here," Brown said. "For me, it's an opportunity to demonstrate a little compassion, to connect with real people that I would never connect with in some sort of way. I learn a little bit more about myself. I learn a little bit more about people because of this experience."

Kelley Slayton used to run alongside Brown's father when he was an inmate. We caught up with Slayton during his morning run on the waterfront in downtown Portland. He's been out of prison for 12 years now, but he still thinks about the track in Salem, where he spent so many years running around in circles, pretending to be somewhere else.

"I used to imagine that I could see over the wall, but I really couldn't see over the wall. I used to imagine that all the time," said Slayton.

Slayton was locked up in his early 20s for a string of serious crimes. He says he was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and still caused trouble behind bars.

"I expected to die in there and I was OK with it," Slayton said.

Slayton joined the prison running club six years into his sentence. And in the shadows of a 24-foot concrete wall, razor wire, and guard towers, he finally found some hope.

"It started changing my life. I didn't want to get into trouble anymore. I wasn't OK with doing the wrong thing every day," he said.

Today, Slayton is a residential counselor at a men's alcohol and drug treatment center. He's also an accomplished runner. He's participated in marathons all over the country, including Boston and New York City.

He showed us his dust-covered commemorative plaque from the Boston Marathon. "This was my first one," Slayton said. "My first three-hour marathon. It was a pretty big deal."

Slayton says running saved him. Without it, he believes he would have died in prison.

"I'm grateful I was given a second chance. I understand a lot of people don't want people to have second chances or even third or fourth chances," said Slayton. "But people do change. And people can become better people."

Running Behind Bars: Part 1

Running Behind Bars: Part 2

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