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Magilligan inmates take part in north's first prison parkrun

Northern Ireland prison staff participating in the run. Picture by Lorcan Doherty

INMATES at Magilligan have become the first prisoners in Northern Ireland to take part in a parkrun.

About 15 prisoners were joined by staff on Saturday as part of an initiative between parkrun UK and Magilligan in Co Derry.

Events typically take place in pleasant parkland surroundings and are free and open to everyone.

It is hoped that participation will help facilitate rehabilitation, prepare prisoners for reintegration into society and reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Magilligan is a medium to low security prison which holds male prisoners with six years or less to serve. It has about 400 prisoners at present.

The entire run takes place within the perimeter walls.

Waterworks parkun in north Belfast was the first to launch in November 2010 and the number of events across Ireland has spiralled more recently. There are now 26 different events in the north and 73 in the Republic.

Magilligan operates slightly differently from other parkrun events. The official name does not include the word `prison'. Instead it is named Lower Drummans parkrun after the townland in which it stands.

Given the limited access to IT facilities, staff register the prisoners, print off personal barcodes, process results and manage the website. Inmates do not include their surnames when they register and results emails are sent to family members.

Colin Rice, senior gym instructor at Magilligan, said prisoners and staff were keen to be involved.

"I want to get more men involved who don't really engage with the gym to encourage a healthier lifestyle. I believe a parkrun is ideal for this as it is available to all, no matter what fitness level," he said.

Governor Gary Milling said rehabilitation was at the heart of all Magilligan did.

"The parkrun presents a good opportunity to help those not yet engaged with health and fitness activities to change their habits and, hopefully, to continue with a focus on a healthy lifestyle when they return to their communities," he said.

Matt Shields, parkrun's country manager in Ireland, said prisoners had a lot to gain from taking part.

"Not only because of the obvious benefits of physical activity and volunteering, but also because of the ties it will foster with their families on the outside," he said.

"They can share experiences by taking part in parkruns simultaneously, meaning families can share results weekly and compare improvement and feel part of a common activity.”

Bria Mongan, Director of Adult Services and Prison Healthcare at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust said it was a worthwhile initiative.

"There are many barriers to participation in physical activity and people in prison have additional restrictions making it more challenging for them," she said.

"This coupled with the need to address health inequalities highlights how imperative it is that we encourage such a beneficial scheme. The parkrun ethos and technology truly supports people to get engaged and stay motivated to run weekly."

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Simon Doyle: No bar to participation at prison parkrun

ON my parkrun travels over the last four years I have witnessed some stunning scenery around Ireland.

Among them, the breathtaking views of the Atlantic from Bere island in west Cork, the beautiful east strand in Portrush and the woodland trails at Stormont estate.

Magilligan prison, the north's newest parkrun event, has more concrete, barbed wire and prefab huts than any other course - but it nevertheless feels like a typical parkrun.

For an hour or so on Saturday it captured the parkrun ethos of community perfectly - inmates and staff running side by side, smiling, encouraging, and with a bit of friendly competition too.

Event director Colin Rice and governor Gary Milling are enthusiastic, delighted to have got it up and running but already looking at how to improve it.

The first 5k test event involved 19 laps around a football pitch. The `live' event on Saturday was six laps of an area at the heart of the prison - lined by Nissen huts dating back to internment. Visitors must go through three massive security gates to reach the course which is surrounded by at least two massive walls.

As the event grows, Mr Milling says he would like to develop an area in the open part of the prison, adding a trail path, to make give this unusual parkrun a more park feel.

Like any parkrun there is a social side, and all those involved, runners and volunteers chat and share a coffee afterwards. Some prisoners were already looking forward to next Saturday frustrated that they "could have gone faster".

A group from Hydebank Wood College travelled in the morning to take part. Chatting to some on the way around the course, and afterwards, it was clear they were enjoying the run - some more than others - but all eager to give it another go. It was generally the same attitude among those at Magilligan.

Exercise in the fresh air and the chance to experience the global parkrun phenomenon.

 Irish News correspondent Simon Doyle

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