Lifting weights in an American prison means joining a culture unlike any seen in a free-world gym, full of crudely welded pig iron and rust. Men forsake masturbation to improve their bench-press stats and consume cans of Jack Mack, the cheapest tinned fish in the world, along with the filthy broth it’s packed in for every one of the 72.5 grams of protein promised on the label. It’s a manly, aggressive universe with rules and customs of its own. I lived it for 10 years.
Walking into the main yard of a maximum-security prison for the first time is an unforgettable experience. I was instantly reminded of Flemish paintings in which sinners toil in hell. A thousand sweaty, shirtless men groaning and cursing over a bunch of rusty iron and home-welded equipment looks much more like torture or the opening credits of a certain type of blue film than exercise.
But exercise it is, and lifting weights is practically a religion in American prisons. Considering the limitations on supplements and equipment, the prisoners have thought of some truly ingenious ways to get themselves jacked. Sometimes too jacked. In the mid-’90s, a number of states enacted bans on weightlifting; the prison systems of Wisconsin, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Florida, and even California all removed at least some of the weightlifting equipment that had been in their yards for years, according to Alex Tepperman’s research. Georgia alone unburdened itself of 150 tons of steel.
Hard-on-crime approaches by right-wing legislatures contributed to this trend, but so did films like 1991’s Cape Fear remake, in which Robert De Niro emerges from prison a pumped-up madman. Later films like 1998’s American History X also invoke the culture of jailhouse lifting, even though real California prisons currently do not feature equipment beyond dip and pull-up bars.
Walking for the first time through that Boschian yard on that sunny day in June 10 years ago, I knew that I would have to participate. I was already massively out of place; I had just finished my NYU degree in history and French a few years before, and begun a career in publishing after some time in Europe. Then I became a heroin addict for long enough to get desperate and commit a couple of amateur stickups. They give you 10 years for that.
Jailhouse weightlifting in New York State has its own culture. The yard in Green Haven Correctional Facility, where I spent four years, is divided into 15 or so courts, each one a concrete paddy with weights and rusty cable machines. Being a constituent of the court is theoretically like having a gym membership, but in fact it’s much more like joining a gang. In the 1970s, John Gotti was the captain of my court, so I used to use “John’s weights.” The courts are racially segregated; I was on the Irish court, which took all the oddballs, but there was also an Italian court, a Jamaican court, a Blood court, etc. There was even a Christian court where the sex offenders could exercise.
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