Yet prison weightlifting in America has never been more controversial. In the early ’90s prison became viewed not as a rehabilitative tool but simply as punishment. Arizona was the first state to remove all weightlifting equipment from their prisons. “The public saw inmates going in bad and coming out bigger and badder,” said one Arizona corrections officer.
Other states followed: California, Oklahoma, Alaska, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Mississippi. Some outlawed upper body enhancement while others, like Louisiana, restricted the weight inmates could lift to 45kg. Montana is one of the few places in which weightlifting is still sanctioned.
Each year politicians attempt to ban weights in prisons. In 1999 Republican Randy”Duke” Cunningham tried to push through the “No Frills Prison Act”, banning weightlifting on a federal level alongside tobacco consumption, while also lowering the quality of prison food. Ironically, he himself became a convict in March 2006. Found guilty of tax evasion and conspiring to pocket $2.4 million in bribes, he was sentenced to eight years.
Plenty of persuasive arguments are employed by its detractors: convicts muscle up to overpower guards; when they leave prison they are brawnier and more dangerous; weight training makes convicts even more aggressive; weights can be used as weapons or escape tools. But weight training in prison has a rich legacy, too, stretching back to the ’40s. In some penitentiaries there would be regular power lifting meets where members of the public would come in to compete against the inmates. The pursuit was seen as a noble one, an exercise in discipline and self-respect.
So are the weights in American prisons making prisoners stronger and meaner? Or is there, as George Demers testifies, redemption and an easing of tensions at the end of a session?
Once inside the double perimeter fence of Montana State Prison, visitors drive past the grey slab of the maximum-security block. To the side of the building is a cream-colored trailer home, otherwise known as the death chamber. It was here in August that David Dawson was executed by lethal injection.
“All the inmates wanted to know when he was executed was whether this was going to cut into their weights time,” says William Sanders, recreation officer in charge of weigh lifting. The 1300 capacity prison is unique in that it offers power lifting competitions to inmates in July and December of every year. Those who take part join the Mind &Muscle Bar-Bell Club, where you learn essential details about bodybuilding and burn the fat programs. “Weightlifting is the dosest these guys ever get to being free,” says Sanders.