Dr. John Hagan looks around the North Dakota State Penitentiary and sees a renaissance.
Interactive programs geared toward improving inmates’ stays and their lives have swept the prison, from Bible and music studies, to family events, such as pumpkin painting and barbecues.
“It’s just some way to connect,” said Hagan, the penitentiary’s medical director.
And now, personalized exercise. But not just inmates are benefiting.
In an exercise clinic through the University of Mary, exercise science and clinical exercise physiology students work one-on-one with inmates for managing chronic pain, athletic injuries and other ailments.
It all started with searching for a solution for inmates’ back, hip and neck pain without resorting to narcotics or opiates, said Hagan, adding that physical therapy stood out and a call with U-Mary helped pave the path.
Jason Kobes, an assistant professor and clinical fieldwork coordinator with U-Mary’s department of exercise physiology, said a summer pilot program helped get the clinic on the rails in September and running through April.
Six to eight inmates are participating in the clinic, with two students rotating every two weeks. Inmates undergo baseline vitals, an electrocardiogram and fitness tests, Kobes said.
From there, they receive an exercise prescription while students garner experience they can’t necessarily find elsewhere.
Hospital staff complete the procedures students can't do themselves while shadowing professionals, according to Hagan, who said the prison clinic offers one-on-one attention.
“It’s a place for our students to get a hands-on experience for some of the populations we don’t get to see on a consistent basis,” said Kobes, adding the program could hopefully grow to see consistent turnover in participating inmates every 12 weeks, but is dependent on time and equipment.
“Really the goal is to teach these guys the benefits of exercise and the benefits they can have as far as improving health, learning how to manage their health and diseases with the program,” Kobes said.
The clinic has already had a cultural effect, according to Hagan.
“It’s all positive. It treats their pain, disability,” he said. “They automatically become role models. They want to distinguish themselves from their own negative opinion of what an inmate is.”
Inmates seeing new faces is also a plus, he added.
“Imagine living here 20 or 30 years. You know everybody. The boredom is terrible,” Hagan said.
“They need that prosocial contact,” said Deputy Warden Steve Foster.
Potentially, the U-Mary collaboration could inspire the prison to further add programming, including gardening, with produce to be donated to shelters or bringing in lifting coaches or yoga sessions.
“A culture of violent felons doing yoga is going to take a bit, but we’ll get there," Hagan said.