Early one morning in the yard at Spring Creek Correctional Center, an inmate approached Sgt. Justin Ennis. A group of fifteen men incarcerated at the institution had just completed an hour-long run around the yard, part of a program that gives inmates an opportunity to leave their cells early for a morning jog alongside correctional officers.

The man let Ennis know that he was worried about another inmate and asked that someone check on him. Ennis, technically off duty that day, said he would let the officers on duty know, and the two parted ways.

“See that? That would never have happened before,” Ennis said. Ennis credits the running program that he started with building the trust between officer and inmate that enabled that conversation. 

An avid runner, Ennis organized the group in late May as a means of connecting with some of the men under his charge. On Sunday and Monday mornings, Ennis doesn’t want officers and inmates – he just wants the running group.

“I don’t want that dynamic here. That dynamic exists again at 8 a.m,” Ennis said. “We’re providing a little vacation from that.”

“My only rule in all of this is No Work.”

In its emphasis on personal relationships that aren’t defined by rank and status, the program also reflects a broader philosophy in effect at Spring Creek: that of Superintendent William Lapinskas, known among his officers to pursue a less punitive policy than implemented at the institution in past years. 

The running shoe manufacturer Altra has committed to donating one pair of running shoes a month to the program, Ennis said.

Participants in the running group told the Seward Journal that it has all the benefits that Ennis described. Runners get to leave the prison’s housing blocks an hour early. They get to socialize with officers and with inmates who live in other units or move in different social circles. 

Randy McDaniel, 34, said that the early start improves his entire day.

“After running, my day is so much more relaxed,” he said. “I’m ready to do anything.”

To some extent, getting out of the housing block early and running a few laps around the yard can take the edge off of being incarcerated, a few inmates said. Prison life is difficult, said Keane Crawford, 38.

“You want to get real? This place is painful,” Crawford said. “You’re not with your family. Half the time you want to cry or beat someone up. If you sit in your room and bottle it up, it won’t come out.”

But the running group gives Crawford an outlet.

“I wish it was every day,” he said. “This is definitely a better way to start my day.”

Kent Matte, 52, who serves as a mentor in the prison’s mental health module, said that running had been personally beneficial, but that its biggest attraction was in persuading everyone that butting heads with each other is a waste of time.

“The biggest thing is trying to break down the barriers between officers and inmates,” Matte said. “You can’t just live back in the Ice Age and expect everything to get better.”