Running Walls

Walls and limits

“I’m fascinated by walls. When I first entered a prison in Milan was because I went there to attend the theatre performance Maratona di New York by Edoardo Erba, which was held inside the theatre of the prison itself. The performance showed two men running in preparation for the New York marathon and talking to each other on existential topics like absence, void of meaning and trauma. While watching it, I was infused with emotions. The context amplified the performance. The subject of the New York marathon and the preparation to achieve it was a clear metaphor for a process of rehabilitation, although the immobility of the run also suggested something different. Rather than thinking in terms of goals and achievement, it was proposing a perpetual movement without purpose. Running a marathon seems to demand this capacity to abandon the thought of the finish line, which only produces anxiety, and to try to run the race as if you would run forever. As I was walking out of the prison, I wondered in excitement “What if I run the wall of the marathoner inside the walls of a prison?” I then realised how that question could open a healing path for prisoners by drawing a parallel between the experience of the wall of the marathon runner and that of the wall of the prison. In fact what if a wall rather than being a barrier is a liminal space to be inhabited enabling existential transformation?


Since the beginning of 2013 a few projects based on marathon running, the Feldenkrais method and autobiography have been proposed inside prisons. In asking the question – what if I run the wall of the marathoner inside the walls of the prison? – paths were opened of learning as well as of awareness. Projects involved prisoners as well as prison staff and different associations along the way. The question asked was not directed to prisoners or prison staff or any other participant in particular but, starting with the first person ‘I’, pointed into the unknown. This brought us together. Rather than confronting each other, we were running in the same direction. What is it to face a wall as a limit? And how does this relate to being human?

The projects contrasted imprisonment with marathon running and explored the potential of juxtaposing two very different experiences that both test the human being’s capacity. They  proposed a limit experience to activate the prison and see through it a social system where the neoliberalism is expressed. In fact by paying attention to how to run a wall, they revealed at the same time the context of the prison where these projects take place (Nora Bateson has defined this approach ‘transcontextual research’, which is an innovative form of inquiry creating a context in which to study the contexts). The projects helped to highlight different ‘walls’ emergent in the prison and to build up a process of awareness.

Bollate prison (Milan) 2013-2014 – Italy 
in collaboration with NGO Bambinisenzasbarre 

The first experience was in the prison of Bollate (Milan-Italy, 2013-14) where I worked in collaboration with Italian NGO Bambinisenzasbarre for one and a half years. It was shaped in accordance with the aims of the association in connecting parents inside the prison with their children outside. The project ended with the participation of a team of runners (a mix of inmates and free citizens) in the Milan city marathon, on 6th April 2014. It received the prize as best project connected to running at the Milano Marathon Awards 2014, an academic publication on the Scottish Journal of performance (Maccagno P., 2015. Running walls. The performance of the limit in prison) and articles on La Repubblica Correre oltre il muro, la sfida dei detenuti

HMP YOI Grampian 2016 – Scotland
A following similar experience has been done in the prison of Peterhead in Scotland (January-June 2016) in collaboration with Familiesoutside (Edinburgh) and with NHS funding.

See Through these walls, article on “Like the wind” running magazine 2016_Through these walls_like the wind
Read article on La Repubblica Dieci km per correre oltre il muro

HMP YOI Grampian 2023 – Scotland
A new pilot project started in February 2023, supported by initial funding in collaboration with Peterhead prison (HMP & YOI Grampian) and a few charity organizations (IFF-International Futures¸ Shmu- Aberdeen community radio, Familiesoutside) for a running club that will serve as a bridge between inside and outside the prison. This specific focus addresses the urgent issue of prisoners tending to reoffend when back in the outer world and entering into a vicious loop of social exclusion and separation. Differently from the previous experiences, this new pilot project works simultaneously inside and outside. The running club in fact welcomes at the same time runners from inside and outside the prison, overcoming risks of stigmatization. It addresses exactly the transition of prisoners in the outer community and issues of health and wellbeing (evidenced as weak in Prison Reports) in the wider society. For strengthening the idea of the bridge, it creates links between outside and inside through a radio show – Runningstories, created in collaboration with Shmu and the Media Unit of the prison giving voice to stories of runners about their running experience and the impact on their health and wellbeing. It also organizes races for giving the opportunity of bringing families together (in collaboration with Familiesoutiside) and health wellbeing events for promoting a sustainable healthy prison.