But for a strict rule against running anywhere on the prison grounds, and except for the sharp and shiny razor wire strung above the fences, this seems like any other Relay for Life.
And where other Relays typically last for 24 hours, the event that began at 9 a.m. Saturday (June 27) at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy would last only 10.
A master of ceremonies begins the event by asking the inmates to remember why they have gathered on such a sunny day: to remember those people who have been lost, to honor those who are now fighting the disease and to serve those who may one day enter the battle.
A guard sings the “Star Spangled Banner,” and inmates take to the track as Donna Summer sings “I Will Survive” over a set of speakers.
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This would be the 13th year that Purdy inmates walked to raise money for the American Cancer Society, and Saturday’s total of $11,840 brought the total raised by inmates since 2003 to $104,494.
As the society’s signature fundraising event, Relay for Life has raised $5 billion since Tacoma surgeon Gordy Klatt raised $27,000 walking the track at the University of Puget Sound 30 years ago. Organizers today can count 5,000 Relays held annually across the United States and 1,000 events held in nearly two dozen countries worldwide.
Tacoma native Pat Flynn, who was with Klatt at the beginning and who has gone on to become known as the “Mother of Relay” after training thousands of volunteers nationwide, said she was not surprised to hear that prisoners were among the participants.
“We were a few years into it when we realized that this was not an event, but an experience,” Flynn said. “In the beginning it was a fundraising event, and it turned into a community experience like no other.”
To earn a place within the community that formed Saturday in the medium-security yard at the prison, each of the 354 inmates paid $30 to participate. Those who couldn’t afford the fee were allowed a time-payment plan, and some were assisted by contributions from local churches. All the women who participated had been free of rules infractions for at least 90 days.
Minimum security, medium security, maximum security and special needs — this was the one time during the year that inmates from all of the four residential classifications were allowed to mix and mingle, and mix and mingle they did following the launching lap.
They sat in the shade of portable tents with team names proudly painted on cardboard: Cupcake Queens, Pretty in Pink, 50 Shades of Pink, Walk for the Fight, Daddy’s Girls, Bad Girls of the Bible, No Regrets and 31 more.
“These are people. These are just people,” said Michael Orosz, co-chairman of the event and a fiscal technician with the state Department of Corrections.
“It makes a difference here,” said Yvonne, an inmate with two years and nine months remaining of her 28-year sentence for first-degree murder in Pierce County.
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Yvonne is a member of the “core committee” that organizes the annual Relay.
At the Relay, she said, “these women are able to reconnect. We lose our family members, we lose dear friends. Sometimes we’re not able to grieve. This gives us that. We made a mistake, but we are not that mistake.”
Kim, from Whatcom County, has 14 years remaining on a 26-year sentence. “When I walk, I think about praying that they get enough money and that they find a cure,” she said. “We all have a common goal — to find a cure.”
Lisa, from Tacoma, has four years left on a 10-year sentence. “I’m walking for my grandma, and maybe myself,” she said.
She’s awaiting the results of a biopsy.
“I just pray a lot when I’m walking,” she said. “We’re in here for bad things, but we want to do good things.”
“This is an opportunity for us to get out of prison for a minute,” said Kim. “We have an opportunity to show our good side, to think about somebody else, a survivor, or somebody who didn’t survive. It takes us out of this place.”
At the Relay for Life, she said, “We’re kind of free.”