A clash over pumping iron behind bars (Rhode Island)

Some prison guards say weightlifting by inmates makes them more dangerous and should be banned. Inmates say the exercise relieves tension.

The Providence Journal-Bulletin
8 June 1998
Vol. 12-108
by Johnathan Saltzman
CRANSTON: In the past two years, Carlo P. Belloli has gotten into perhaps the best shape of his life. Lifting weights two hours a day has added 30 pounds of muscle to his broad 6-foot frame. After a vigorous workout Friday, his barrel chest bulged inside his damp sweatshirt.

Belloli doesn't pay a dime to use the equipment, but few fitness enthusiasts would envy him. He works out in a small, windowless gym hemmed in by fences topped with razor wire at the maximum-security unit of the state prison.

Belloli, a 41-year-old convicted murderer, is one of several hundred inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions who exercise with weights. Inmates and prison administrators say the activity relieves stress, enhances health, helps prisoners pass the time and improves discipline.

But the General Assembly is considering revoking the privilege. The House easily passed a bill in April to prohibit inmates from using exercise equipment that bulks up muscles. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the legislation shortly.

Among those pushing for the ban is the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, which contends that pumped-up inmates are more aggressive and can use their brawn - as well as free weights - to intimidate or overpower officers and prisoners.

"Inmates constantly test you to see whether they can get away with the rules or not," said Sean Rocchio, president of the 1,200-member union. "And a bigger, more muscular inmate is apt to test."

Proponents of the ban also assert that such inmates pose a menace to society when they get out. And as a matter of principle, weightlifting foes add, prisoners shouldn't have such luxuries as barbells, incline benches and strength-building machines.

But prison administrators and inmates counter that there's no correlation between weightlifting and aggression. On the contrary, they say, pumping iron releases pent-up hostility, and taking away the activity might heighten prison tensions.

"I'm probably the most conservative of all the administrators we have, and I can't see a use for (the ban)," said Walter Whitman, the warden of maximum security and a prison employee for 22 years. "I probably have larger, more muscular staff than I do inmates."

Belloli, one of the few people ever sentenced by the state to life without possibility of parole (he and a companion were convicted of fatally stabbing a Woonsocket man 27 times in 1994), said weightlifting calms prisoners.

"If they didn't have this gym," said the 254-pound, goateed inmate, "this place would turn into a war zone."

The sharply worded debate resembles others in the country in recent years. Clamoring for harsher prison sentences has prompted some states to revoke privileges obtained in the prisoners' rights movement of the 1960s.

This year, California began removing weightlifting equipment from prisons. And in a move that could have more wide-ranging repercussions, prison officials proposed taking away law books, which inmates use to challenge their confinement.

Ohio has removed weights from prisons, according to Stephen Chand of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, a 65,000-member group that supports the ban, and other states are considering following suit. Meanwhile, Congress has decided that federal prisons should not repair or replace weights.

In Rhode Island, the bill approved by the House would let prisoners continue doing cardiovascular exercise such as running and basketball. But they would be prohibited from activities that, according to the legislation, "increase the muscular mass and bulk of the user."

Currently, the more than 2,100 inmates in the maximum-, medium- and minimum-security units can use weights or weightlifting machines in gyms or recreation yards, according to Albert A. Bucci, a prison spokesman. The remaining 1,400 prisoners are held in units without equipment.

Rep. Peter G. Palumbo, D-Cranston, proposed the ban because, he said, a prison lifestyle of weightlifting and high-starch diets has produced hulking inmates who can overpower correctional officers.

"Some of these guys are monsters," said Palumbo, who noticed their heft a few years ago when his softball team played the prisoners in a special game at the ACI.

He was also alarmed by the availability of the weights themselves. During a fiery riot at the maximum-security unit in 1991, he said, inmates brandishing barbells - as well as knives, saws and clubs - caused more than $1 million in damage to buildings.

Palumbo lifts weights for recreation at the Future Fitness Center in Garden City. He said prisoners shouldn't have use of such equipment, free, when "there are law-abiding citizens who can't afford to go to a gym.

If his bill passes - which is questionable, given that Department of Corrections Director George A. Vose Jr. opposes it - the state should donate the weights to neighborhood gyms, Palumbo said.

Leaders of the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers say weightlifting leads to prison violence. However, the only case they cited occurred a decade ago, when a weightlifting inmate severely beat and kicked a deputy warden, James Berard, in the old maximum-security gymnasium.

A state police report said the assailant used a 5-pound weight in the attack, according to Bucci. But he and other prison administrators pointed out that a prisoner lifting weights at the time came to Berard's defense.

The rift between the prison administration and correctional officers' union is part of a broader conflict. The union has worked without a contract for almost two years, and a mediator is trying to bring both sides together. In April, several hundred correctional officers rallied at the prison to voice their frustration with contract talks.

Warden Whitman said the proposed weightlifting ban represents "more of an emotional issue than a security issue."

Testifying at a brief Senate Judiciary hearing last week, he focused on the benefits of the activity. He said that regular exercise requires self-discipline, so inmates who lift weights also tend to participate in other productive endeavors such as prison education. And because weightlifting is a privilege that can be rewarded or revoked, it's an effective management tool.

One member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Donna M. Walsh, D-Charlestown, said weightlifting might actually reduce prison medical bills.

"In light of the fact that we have an aging prison population, all the exercise we give inmates would probably cut down on health problems," she said.

Prison officials also note that if an inmate wants to hurt someone, there are less conspicuous weapons than a dumbbell. On Friday, an employee showed a visitor a 6-inch screw that a laborer had apparently left inside maximum security. It could have made a dangerous weapon.

Standing in the rotunda of maximum security, Whitman said Palumbo's bill reflects a misguided notion that prisons are country clubs and that inmates should stew in locked cells. That's shortsighted, he said, because a fitter, better-educated prisoner has a greater chance of succeeding when he leaves prison than one who loafed.

"They all get out eventually," Whitman said. "Very few don't get out."

Copyright 1998 ©1998 UMI Company

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