Out­run­ning their pasts

Be­hind bars, in­mates use ath­let­ics to ex­or­cise their de­mons


The prison’s small gym had be­gun to smell like sweat. The room was filled with heavy breath­ing, grunts and in­mates count­ing their reps. In one cor­ner, a group hud­dled around a pris­oner on the bench press, spot­ters stand­ing ready at ei­ther side with a third be­hind him. A prison ther­a­pist ob­served from one cor­ner.

“It’s a re­ally cool process to see,” Kari Ben­nett said. “They form these bonds while work­ing out, help­ing them to con­nect with peers, process emo­tions, talk to each other about what’s go­ing on.”

While most Amer­i­can prison sys­tems uti­lize sports and ex­er­cise to help main­tain peace and or­der in a stress-filled, volatile en­vi­ron­ment, the Utah Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions has in­cor­po­rated sport in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of some in­mates, us­ing team games and reg­u­lar ex­er­cise as part of a co­or­di­nated ther­apy pro­gram.

The Utah sys­tem is filled with men who have com­mit­ted crimes big and small, both triv­ial and heinous. But prison of­fi­cials are try­ing to re­ha­bil­i­tate them all just the same, pun­ish­ing con­victs for their crimes but also giv­ing them the tools so they don’t be­come re­peat of­fend­ers.

About 45 min­utes into a re­cent morn­ing weightlift­ing class in the Promon­tory fa­cil­ity, a lower-se­cu­rity part of the state prison sys­tem that houses the Con-Quest pro­gram for drug and al­co­hol ad­dicts, in­mate Kur­tis Hunsaker be­gan grab­bing plas­tic chairs and po­si­tion­ing them in a cir­cle, not far from a bas­ket­ball hoop at one end of the gym.

With a ce­ment floor and cin­der block walls, the gym feels like some­thing you might find on a mid­dle school cam­pus — aside from the trio of guards keep­ing watch from one cor­ner. Lo­gos from the fa­cil­ity’s eight dor­mi­to­ries are painted on the walls, in­clud­ing the Fal­cons, Cougars and Lions. As the in­mates fin­ished their fi­nal reps, they re­trieved wa­ter and tow­els, and each took a seat in the cir­cle.

The group is called Ad­dict II Ath­lete, and it meets three times a week, ev­ery ses­sion built around sport, dis­cus­sion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Tues­days and Fri­days might in­clude bas­ket­ball, soft­ball or run­ning. Thurs­days be­gin with a weightlift­ing class. Most games in prison have the fa­mil­iar rules with mi­nor wrin­kles: In Ul­ti­mate Fris­bee, for ex­am­ple, when a disc hits the fence, it sets off an alarm in the con­trol room and is there­fore con­sid­ered a turnover. In

soft­ball, if the bat comes into con­tact with a per­son, the game is au­to­mat­i­cally over.

Each ses­sion in­cludes a 30-minute group dis­cus­sion about ad­dic­tion and so­bri­ety, about pres­sures felt in­side these walls and fears about what lurks be­yond them. Us­ing sport as a cat­a­lyst for dis­cus­sion, the in­mates ex­plore iden­tity, the root of their ad­dic­tions and ways their fu­ture will be dif­fer­ent from their past.

“I got one thing,” Nestor Lu­jan told the group. “Pretty soon I’m out. I’m about five weeks from get­ting out. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

Lu­jan is a 40-year-old in­mate with the block letters “Brown-pride” tat­tooed on the back of his shaved scalp. He has been in and out of prison most of his life, and by now, he knows it’s eas­ier to get in than to stay out.

“I’m scared,” he said.

‘Part of my reg­u­lar life now’

Most of the men in Ad­dict II Ath­lete are in on drug-re­lated charges: us­ing, selling, steal­ing to sup­port a habit. Be­cause they had been ac­cepted into the prison’s Con-Quest pro­gram, each is re­quired to par­tic­i­pate in a ther­apy pro­gram. Groups such as Al­co­holics Anony­mous, Nar­cotics Anony­mous or a church-spon­sored 12-step pro­gram don’t speak to ev­ery­body, so early last year prison of­fi­cials adopted Ad­dict II Ath­lete, a small sup­port group that had found some suc­cess in Utah com­mu­ni­ties us­ing sport — par­tic­u­larly run­ning — to help men and women con­front the tor­ments and temp­ta­tions of ad­dic­tion.

“They al­ready have the neg­a­tive la­bels of in­mate or drug user or ad­dict,” said Blu Robin­son, a drug coun­selor and founder of the group. “What I say is, ‘Let’s erase all that and call you what you re­ally are: You’re an ath­lete; you’re a cham­pion; you’re a fa­ther, a son.’ They start build­ing onto that so that they can have a bet­ter view of who they are.”

In the gym, Lu­jan listed his con­cerns about his July re­lease date. He has been a drug user more than half his life, in and out of prison for the past 20 years. He doesn’t want to come back.

“I think he’s more wor­ried about change,” of­fered a fel­low in­mate, Jake Vanderwoude, “be­ing sta­bi­lized in here, as op­posed to go­ing out there and tak­ing on all the re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

They sug­gest ways Lu­jan can stay clean and main­tain healthy habits. Many here con­sider sport es­sen­tial to en­dur­ing life in­side prison and to hav­ing any chance at sur­viv­ing out­side of it. On the track, on the weight bench and in ther­apy, they work to­gether to un­der­stand their flaws while con­fronting the con­se­quences of their dumb mis­takes and poor de­ci­sions. One key for Lu­jan, they agree, is to keep ex­er­cis­ing.

“I’ve never wanted to say, ‘Hey, let’s do some drugs and then go work out.’ That’s never hap­pened,” in­mate Larry Davis said.

Lu­jan thought about it. He had hoped he had fi­nally wig­gled free from ad­dic­tion’s clenched fist. He has a wife wait­ing on the out­side, a kid, a lov­ing mother, too. For him, this time felt dif­fer­ent.

“I’ve never been an AA or NA kind of guy any­ways,” Lu­jan said. “This right here is prob­a­bly the best sup­port group, the best set­ting, the best type of peo­ple. This isn’t some­thing I’m do­ing just while I’m here. This is part of my reg­u­lar life now. I’m al­ways go­ing to work out wher­ever I go, what­ever I do. If I stop work­ing out, then I’m prob­a­bly start­ing to do re­ally bad in life.”

Af­ter more than 30 min­utes, the con­ver­sa­tion be­gan to wind down. The in­mates stacked their chairs and left the gym, some for a ther­apy ap­point­ment, a few back to their dorm and most count­ing the hours un­til their next work­out.

In it to­gether

Hunsaker, 26, is one of the peer lead­ers be­hind bars. He of­fers ad­vice, coun­sel and a non-judg­men­tal ear. Like all of the pris­on­ers here, Hunsaker has been en­cour­aged to search for ex­pla­na­tions rather than ex­cuses, learn­ing to draw lines, for ex­am­ple, from a tragic up­bring­ing to a wasted adult­hood. Out on the prison yard, he runs five kilo­me­ters ev­ery day, which gives him a lot of time to think. He has no prob­lem trac­ing the roots of his ad­dic­tion.

Grow­ing up, his mother was a school teacher and played an or­gan at the fam­ily’s church. She also ran a meth lab un­til author­i­ties raided it and ar­rested her. Hunsaker was 15 years old at the time. “It kind of shat­tered my whole life,” he said. He be­gan hang­ing around the wrong sorts of friends, and “in­stead of go­ing to sem­i­nary, I was hang­ing out be­hind the sem­i­nary build­ing get­ting high.”

Things es­ca­lated quickly. Hunsaker tore an an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment play­ing high school football and be­came ad­dicted to oxy­codone. Soon he wasn’t just pop­ping pills; he was snort­ing, smok­ing and shoot­ing opi­ates as well. He turned to heroin be­cause it was cheaper and then started selling drugs to pay for his ad­dic­tion.

“Pretty soon I was do­ing heroin and meth in the same nee­dle so that I could stay awake to sell heroin,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing spi­raled out of con­trol.” Bur­glar­ies and coun­ter­feit checks were fol­lowed by ar­rests and prison sen­tences.

He ini­tially spurned treat­ment be­hind bars. Hunsaker said he would “rather pull my toes off with pli­ers” than at­tend AA meet­ings. He at­tended the ini­tial Ad­dict II Ath­lete meet­ing last spring and for the first time felt a sense of con­trol. In con­trast to pro­grams that en­cour­age pa­tients to sur­ren­der to the ad­dic­tion and call upon a higher power, he was in charge of his own work­out, had an out­let for the pent-up emo­tions and anx­i­eties and was part of a team. And per­haps just as im­por­tant, he fi­nally had some­thing to look for­ward to each day.

“We don’t have a lot of days that are spe­cial,” he said.

The in­mates or­ga­nized a five-kilo­me­ter run last spring and staged a sec­ond one this April. More than 50 in­mates cir­cled the yard 16 times un­der the watch­ful eyes of guards. A funny thing hap­pened: Even as in­mates com­pleted the race, they kept run­ning. They caught up with oth­ers who were strug­gling, si­dled up be­side them and en­cour­aged them all the way to the fin­ish line.

Ther­a­pists no­ticed that they weren’t just tack­ling their own ad­dic­tions; they had taken an in­ter­est in the so­bri­ety of oth­ers. It stems from a bond, they say, forged by run­ning laps, by bench­ing heavy weights, by com­pet­ing in bas­ket­ball tour­na­ments — to­gether.

Cor­rec­tions ex­perts are un­able to quan­tify the long-term ben­e­fits sports and recre­ation be­hind bars might of­fer. Stud­ies haven’t been done, and most of the ev­i­dence is anec­do­tal. Jim Bonta is a long­time prison psy­chol­o­gist who helped au­thor the guide­lines used by many pa­role boards in North Amer­ica to gauge likely re­cidi­vism. He said recre­ation and leisure ac­tiv­i­ties are among sev­eral fac­tors that should be con­sid­ered but warned against mak­ing a def­i­nite link be­tween ath­letic pur­suits and re­peat crim­i­nal be­hav­ior.

“I used to work in max-se­cu­rity prison,” he said. “Even if you sit and watch them en­gag­ing in a game of pickup football in the recre­ation yard — which is fine, it passes the time, takes up their day — but lis­ten to what they talk about. They’re not talk­ing, ‘ Geez, I want to get out of prison, I want to go straight, find a job, set­tle down with a nice girl.’ If you lis­ten care­fully, they’re talk­ing about, ‘ What’s our next score? Can’t wait to find drugs.’ ”

When Robin­son founded Ad­dict II Ath­lete four years ago, he knew sport alone wasn’t the so­lu­tion. A re­cov­er­ing ad­dict him­self, he works as a clin­i­cal sub­stance abuse coun­selor for Utah County and said that while ex­er­cise might of­fer a healthy lifestyle, it more im­por­tantly also could serve as a trig­ger for dis­cus­sion and in­tro­spec­tion. The pris­on­ers in Utah spoke glow­ingly of their ex­pe­ri­ence and say the im­pact goes be­yond sport and ex­er­cise. In­mate Ja­cob Sea­man, 33, called it the “most sat­is­fy­ing thing I’ve ever done.”

“If some­one is will­ing to work out with me and go through that ef­fort, it sets the ta­ble for me to be able to talk about what it is that’s re­ally both­er­ing me,” he said. “That’s what works for me.”

Hunsaker won that ini­tial 5K race last year and helped or­ga­nize the sec­ond one this spring. His long brown hair is tied in a pony­tail and swings from side to side as he jogs the perime­ter of the yard ev­ery day along a chain-link fence. He knows he’s in a cage, but for at least an hour each day, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel that way.

‘We ben­e­fit from set­ting goals’

Else­where in the sprawl­ing prison sys­tem, sport has sprouted a bit more or­gan­i­cally, pro­vid­ing a flicker of hope in one of the most bar­ren places in Utah. While the Promon­tory fa­cil­ity houses those bat­tling ad­dic­tions, the medium-se­cu­rity Wasatch fa­cil­ity is home to all sorts of crim­i­nals. Jason Pen­ney is a sex of­fender, and for a long time he had noth­ing to look for­ward to.

The 42-year old pris­oner strug­gled adapt­ing to life be­hind bars when he first came here 15 years ago and be­came de­pressed. When his weight bal­looned from 200 pounds to nearly 260, he started run­ning in the yard on his own. He was self-con­scious in those early days and wore dark sun­glasses so he could avoid eye con­tact with other in­mates.

“It was kind of a dif­fi­cult thing be­ing heav­ier and try­ing to run in here,” he said. “Lots of heck­les, kind of snide com­ments.”

He even­tu­ally be­came more com­fort­able and much faster, and Pen­ney be­gan talk­ing to the prison ad­min­is­tra­tion about for­mal­iz­ing a run­ning pro­gram. In 2012, he helped stage a half-marathon in the Wasatch yard and then a full marathon the fol­low­ing fall. About 15 in­mates fin­ished that ini­tial marathon, and another 35 or so com­pleted ei­ther a 10K or half-marathon. Pen­ney still felt there was room for growth.

He sat in his cell with pen­cil and pa­per and be­gan scrawl­ing out a note, a plea for help: “[R]un­ning has be­come a calm­ing, sta­bi­liz­ing in­flu­ence in our, at times, chaotic lives. The men tak­ing up the chal­lenge of dis­tance run­ning do not fit the stereo­typ­i­cal pro­file of a con­victed felon. We have all cho­sen run­ning as our av­enue to re­cov­ery. Run­ning has inspired each of us to el­e­vate our lives through the en­deavor of mov­ing for­ward.”

He mailed it to his mother in South Dakota to type, and she sent copies to sev­eral col­lege coaches and run­ning clubs. Isaac Wood, an as­sis­tant coach at nearby We­ber State, re­sponded and be­gan show­ing up ev­ery other Fri­day to lead a run­ning class. Fliers were posted around the prison, and more than 50 in­mates have been show­ing up for in­struc­tion. They will stage another full marathon this fall in the prison yard.

Pen­ney lives in Char­lie block, a some­what priv­i­leged unit for in­mates who have ex­hib­ited good be­hav­ior. In­mates in this unit sleep two to a cell and have ac­cess to a smaller yard, only about 20 yards long — 22 laps for a mile. Six days a week Pen­ney can be found run­ning cir­cles in si­lence. He can tick off the ben­e­fits to run­ning in prison, but per­haps noth­ing is big­ger, he said, than goal-set­ting. Pen­ney has his sum­mer run­ning sched­ule en­tirely mapped out. He spends most days think­ing about his last run or plan­ning his next one. He’s cer­tain that will carry over some­day to a life out­side the prison’s walls.

“I don’t be­lieve so­ci­ety ben­e­fits when in­mates are re­leased to the com­mu­nity who have for­got­ten how to set goals,” Pen­ney said. “In here— three hots and a cot— if you just sit back and do noth­ing, you can get by in here with­out set­ting goals. You can go for years with­out hav­ing any goals in mind. I think we ben­e­fit from set­ting goals and work­ing to­ward them. I think for most of us, run­ning pro­vides a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent blue­print for how to live our lives.”

In Ad­dict II Ath­lete, the coaches and coun­selors stress “erase and re­place” — erase your past and re­place it with some­thing health­ier. Jeff Smith is a dis­ci­ple. He served time for piling up mul­ti­ple DUI charges. When he was fi­nally re­leased, he was ready to move on — but to what?

“When you take out the drugs and you take out the al­co­hol, you’ve got this huge void that you don’t know what to do with,” Smith said.

Ad­dict II Ath­lete kept him among like­minded peo­ple, peo­ple who once had lived drink to drink and learned to sub­sist mile to mile. In ad­di­tion to the prison fa­cil­ity, Ad­dict II Ath­lete has about 500 par­tic­i­pants spread across three lo­ca­tions in Utah. When in­mates are re­leased from Promon­tory and the Con-Quest pro­gram, they’re en­cour­aged to con­nect with Robin­son and con­tinue with weightlift­ing or run­ning or team sports.

Pen­ney hopes he gets that chance. He has been be­fore a pa­role board once be­fore and goes again next month. Tech­ni­cally, his sen­tence is five years to life. He has served 15 so far and has no re­lease date. Like many in the prison, he’s still try­ing to out­run his past.

“It’s that self-dis­ci­pline and ded­i­ca­tion to achiev­ing a goal that I think will get me there and help me take the steps nec­es­sary to suc­cess­fully rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety,” he said.

‘Doesn’t have to be a third time’

Lights flicker on at the Promon­tory fa­cil­ity ev­ery morn­ing at 6 o’clock. Af­ter a dorm meet­ing and break­fast, the in­mates in the Ad­dict II Ath­lete pro­gram trickle into a room and take a seat. A prison ther­a­pist read some­thing one re­cent morn­ing that Smith, the for­mer felon who’s now run­ning straight, had re­cently posted on Face­book: “In the end, those are all OUR miles, no one can do them for us. We have good miles and we have bad miles, but we still have to be brave and suf­fer through each one of them.”

Sit­ting in the front row, 29-year-old Jared Soren­son nod­ded his head. “That’s right. And you know, the first two miles are usu­ally the hard­est. It’s that way with re­cov­ery down to a tee.”

A cou­ple of rows back, Bryan Smith, 32 years old with a shaved head and small patch of hair on his chin, said, “When I go out there and run, I’m free in my own mind. I’m not a pris­oner.”

Soon they were dis­cussing their strug­gles again, and Doug Wam­s­ley raised his hand. He’s 54 years old and in on drug pos­ses­sion and dis­tri­bu­tion charges. It’s not his first stint. He told the group that on June 10 at 5:34 p.m., his girl­friend out­side had a baby boy: 6 pounds, 2 ounces, 19 inches long.

“It’s pure hell know­ing that I couldn’t be there,” he said. “It’s time to grow up and be a man.”

His voice cracked, and his eyes wa­tered. Wam­s­ley had 18 more months re­main­ing on his sen­tence, 18 more months be­fore he could have any shot at be­ing a fa­ther.

A fel­low in­mate sug­gested that baby should be in­cen­tive to get out and stay clean. “I failed at it twice al­ready.” “Doesn’t have to be a third time.” “Well, it sure feels like it.” Hunsaker sat in one cor­ner, lis­ten­ing to Wam­s­ley. He was in jail when he found out his wife was preg­nant and in prison when his daugh­ter was born. She is al­most 2 now, walk­ing and learn­ing to talk.

“I’m watch­ing her grow up in that vis­it­ing room,” he told the room, point­ing to another part of the fa­cil­ity.

There were no easy an­swers, and the con­ver­sa­tions don’t al­ways have happy end­ings dur­ing group ther­apy. Forty-five min­utes passed, and they all walked out­doors into the yard to let off steam. About a dozen men hit the grass field to com­pete in Ul­ti­mate Fris­bee, and another dozen or so opted to run, jog or walk laps.

The Ul­ti­mate game is good-na­tured. When one man dropped the disc, another teased, “I thought you were an Ad­dict II Ath­lete? You looked just like an ad­dict right there.”

On the perime­ter, Hunsaker and oth­ers counted their laps. Five laps equal one mile. As they run, they could see the Oquirrh Moun­tains on the hori­zon. All that sep­a­rated them is two lay­ers of chain link en­cased in rolls of barbed wire — or, more sim­ply, the com­ple­tion of their re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram.

As tem­per­a­tures topped 90 de­grees and the Ul­ti­mate Fris­bee play­ers were forced to squint to make their catches, Davis, one of the old­est in the group at 57, be­gan to slow the pace of his laps. He has been locked up 10 times and re­leased nine. He es­ti­mates he has been through some treat­ment pro­gram or another a dozen times, al­ways fall­ing into old habits on the out­side

He swears this time will be dif­fer­ent. He com­pleted the five-kilo­me­ter run this spring; he’s present at ev­ery weightlift­ing class and each ther­apy ses­sion. The Con-Quest pro­gram, and Ad­dict II Ath­lete par­tic­u­larly, res­onates with him.

“It’s whole dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at things this time,” he said.

He’s due to be re­leased next March but said he would be will­ing to stick around longer if they would let him. He doesn’t want to leave this time un­til he’s ac­tu­ally re­ha­bil­i­tated, and he feels he has a few more miles still ahead of him.

In­mates run laps around the yard at the Utah State Prison as part of the Ad­dicts II Ath­letes pro­gram. The in­mates meet three times a week for sports, weightlift­ing and dis­cus­sion in the hopes of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Clock­wise from top: Ad­dicts II Ath­letes lift weights be­fore a meetin meet­ing. Wam­s­ley was up­set about hav­ing been in prison when his Cre­vis­ton leaves the weight room af­ter a ses­sion. Jason Pen­ney wro pounds since start­ing to run. And Erik Fite tosses a disc dur­ing a ga

ng at the Promon­tory fa­cil­ity in Draper, Utah. In­matesMichaelWar­dle, right, and DougWam­s­ley shake hands dur­ing a

son was born. “It’s pure hell know­ing that I couldn’t be there,” he said. “It’s time to grow up and be a man.” Brad ote to col­lege coaches ask­ing for help with a run­ning pro­gram for the Utah State Prison in Draper. Pen­ney has lost 60 ame of Ul­ti­mate Fris­bee. If the disc hits the fence, an alarm au­to­mat­i­cally sounds, and it is con­sid­ered a turnover.


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