The Great Dumbell Theft

Prison News Service
Spring 1996
by Jon Marc Taylor
The debate over the function and purpose of prisons is as old as the concept of incarceration . From the advent of the competing Auburn and Pennsylvania systems to Brockway's Reformatory structure to the Medical Model evolving into the Just Deserts warehousing operation and the current "retributive justice" perspective, society has never settled on what it wants or expects from the act of imprisonment: deterrence, incapacitation, punishment, or rehabilitation - or a combination thereof.

For the past two decades, the pendulum of the use of increasing correctional punitiveness has swung to the right, reaching a crescendo during the last election cycle. Searching for "hot button" topics and "sizzle soundbites," politicians focused on making prison life harsher and starker than it already is to further deter crime and punish those foolish enough to ignore the warning. In this sea of political rhetoric, the rather mundane issue of prison weight training became a local, regional, and national topic.

In March of 1994, first term Congresswoman Deborah Pryce (R-OH) attached an amendment to the Omnibus Crime Bill to ban weightlifting equipment in federal prisons. Pryce commented that "we are supplying a means for many prisoners to significantly increase their strength and bulk, making future acts of violence more likely." The Pryce amendment, however, was not part of the final crime bill signed by the president in September 1994.

One year later, freshman representative Steve Chabot (R-OH) resurrected the amendment in the Violent Criminal Incarceration Act of 1995, which passed the House in February. Even more insidious is that the ban applies to state prisons as well if those jurisdictions receive part of the $10 billion allocated in the crime bill for new prison construction.

"Too many criminals spend their time in prison becoming even more violent criminal machines," Chabot said. "We need more books in prison and less weight-lifting equipment." Ironically a truly hypocritical statement since the previous bill took the books out of prison by eliminating federal funding for prisoner higher education by barring inmates from Pell Grant eligibility.

At the state level, South and North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio politicians are considering legislation to remove such equipment from their prisons. Mississippi among other limiting measures, banned inmate weight lifting equipment in a special August 1994 session of the state's legislature. Last October, Wisconsin inmates lost access to the iron pile by order of Governor Tommy Thompson. Arizona has moved prison weight lifting equipment as well.

The month after Pryce's amendment, Wisconsin's Milwaukee County board of supervisors voted to eliminate all forms of weight training in the county's 1400-inmate prison. Anthony Zielinski, a county supervisor and amateur bodybuilder rationalized the ban stating that "the government should not be in the business of taking criminals and making them bigger, stronger, and more dangerous and then releasing them upon society."

Even before the parole, when "bulked up" ex-cons supposedly would become a danger to society, the issue of inmate access to weight training equipment has been a consideration for the correctional systems. Washington D.D., officials believe inmates become more aggressive from weight training in a similar vein, Washington state administrators observe that weights at times are used in a control/power mode" (Corrections Today, 1994).

In May of 1993, a Kansas correctional officer was killed by an inmate wielding a weight. From this and other assaults involving free weights, the department is considering abolishing the exercise equipment from their institution. North Carolina and Georgia have also reported assaults involving the use of weights. In overall consideration, James Photis of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America quite simply questions, "Why should we be using our tax money to create bulked-up super criminals."

On the Other Hand

There is strong support among many correctional systems, administrators and line personnel for inmate access to weight training equipment. Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Dr. Kathy Hawk, who opposed the Pryce bill, stated that research demonstrated that weight training was an efficient, inexpensive method of relieving the tremendous pressure of incarceration. Moreover, the director observed, offenders who train with weights "are actually less likely than non-trainers to engage in violence."

Pennsylvania officials reported similar reduced problems with weight lifters, and that assaults with weights were "far less than assaults with kitchen utensils, contraband from shops or maintenance equipment." although, weights were by far the easiest item on the list for prisoners to access (Corrections Today 1994). Even after parts from a weight machine were used in a Connecticut disturbance, administrators continue to support weight training, noting that removing them would create more violence than it would curtail.

Captain A.A. St. Peter of the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco, observed that they had little trouble with prisoners who buffed iron. He said the men developed self-pride, practiced more discipline in their lives, and many had given up drugs to pursue their sport. Quite simply, "through body building," the captain said, "their lives had changed" (Wright, 1994).

Corrections Today, (1994), the American Correctional Association's official publication, reported that inmates themselves recognize the importance of weight training. As one prisoner said, through weight lifting. "you can take those once uncontrollable desires that got you in trouble and use them in a structured way. You can release aggression and use energy positively. After a year, you might be a different guy."

Finally, in most corrections systems, recreation equipment, including weights, are paid for by the inmates themselves. With profits from the prisoner's canteen and commissary operations (i.e. the company store), prisoners pay for the very equipment that others want to now take away without any mention of renumeration. This act, according to definition - the act of taking away of another's property with out his or her consent and with the intention of depriving him of it - is theft. The question then becomes who shall serve the sentence for this crime?

Beyond rhetoric

Upon release (supposedly the time of greatest danger to the public) the efforts of weight training seem to have the opposite perceived result of rampaging barbarians mugging the man and pummelling the police. Although, anecdotal accounts have been reported, Gene Ellebre, president of Bill Glass Prison Ministry that conduct hundreds of prison based programs a year involving well-known weight lifters and bodybuilders among other celebrities and inspirational speakers, cites research revealing that offenders partaking of such self-improvement recidivate at a rate of 32 percent, while those who do not invest themselves in such efforts return to prison at a rate of 75 to 80 percent.

In his book, Not Just Pumping Iron, clinical psychologist Edward L.Smith explains how weight training can provide the way to individual growth. Smith categorizes four evolving motives for eight training" "I should," "I have to," "I want to,", and as a "path."

The "I should" lifter works out because someone else wants him to, and quits as soon as the agitator is removed. The "I have to" lifter, in the penal setting at least, would be conceived as an acting out of self-preservation (i.e. bulking up for protection). The "I want to" lifter can evolve from the "I have to" lifter who discovers he likes the challenge or be motivated by some other goal (e.g. athleticism, stress management, etc.). With the progress from consistent effort, Smith explains that weight lifting becomes a "path" for personal growth, that metamorphoses into a way to "confront one's conflicts and fears, and grow."

Dr. Mirella P. Auchus documented psychological evidence of weight training's benefits. Comparing a group of inpatients in traditional group psychotherapy and a group of (non-counseled) out-patients in a study to ascertain the effectiveness of weight training on mental health, the resulting observation was that the same therapeutic progress occurred in both groups. It seems that "discipline and responsibility, problem solving, learning and interest in self care," Auchus noted, spontaneously developed in the out-patient weight training group, even though those traits were not the purpose of the experiment. The experience of weight training improved not only the physical well-being of the out-patient group, but also the traits required to achieve the fitness improved the coping abilities and overall self-esteem of the lifters.

Supporting the scientific analysis, Ron Martiscelli, the recreation director at Florida's Tomoka correctional facility, comments that "the guys that work out have more discipline and self-esteem than just about anyone else in the prison."

In the debate over the potential danger of prisoners training with weights, perhaps Sergeant Andrew Lammers of the Milwaukee House of Corrections puts the concern of paroled and pumped offenders into perspective best, He wryly observes that ex-cons "don't walk into a store, pop out their biceps and say, "Give me your money."

The real debate, however is not over prison iron piles, It does not even concern air conditioning, inmates TV's or prison earned baccalaureates - all issues recently legislated out of existence. These are all just reactionary push buttons used to manipulate an angry, confused, and purposefully scared public into futile venting of their frustrations onto those they are provided to feast upon - the incarcerated.

Strength Tech Comments

This is a very well done article and includes numerous useful references to those researching the issue. I especially like the two paragraph introduction.

It follows with an excellent history of the weight lifting conflict, then has a nice section covering each side of the issue. The "pro" section includes several references we were not aware of before this article.

We commend Mr. Taylor and Prison News for this excellent article. Also a great big thanks to an inmate in Tennessee that called the article to our attention and sent us a copy to post.

Back to Media Coverage of the Issues

Back to Issues Menu

Back to Weight Lifting in Prisons Menu

Back to Strength Tech Home Page