"Sports Behind the Walls"

Strength Tech, Inc.

Sports Behind the Walls
Sports Illustrated 
Vol.69. October 17, 1988 issue. Pgs.82-88.
by Rick Telander. 
As mentioned earlier, this is one of the landmark articles in this field. It was the first to give prison recreation national exposure. Portions of the article that specifically address weightlifting are reproduced below. If you are seriously interested in the topic, I suggest you visit your local library to read the entire article and view the excellent artwork.

For convicts, are athletics a form of rehabilitation, an outlet for excess energy or just a way to pass the time?

You say it to yourself every time you enter one of these joints. Doors clang or roll or buzz shut behind you, and you think, "If I really had to, if I really really had to, I could do time. Not that I want to, God help me, God help any man who crosses the river into darkness. But if I had to - with the help of sports, maybe - I could do time. I'm sure I could .... "

Who is this man? My name is Lowe, a/k/a Beetle. I'm incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, PA. I'm five-foot-six. I weigh 238 pounds. I'm a hungry new lifter. I'm the Ohio Valley Teamsters Prison Postal Meet National Champion in the 242-lb. class. Good competition is hard to find... I'm calling out to all area lifters in the 242-lb. class. Are you man enough to come in and challenge me? Come on with it.

Beetle - subject and author of that missive, which he sent to lifting clubs and newspapers all over the mid-Atlantic area - stands now with his fellow thieves and murders amid the tools of their trade, bars and iron. The room is called the Pit, which is exactly what it should be called. The Pit is filled with weights and the sour odor of sweat and the even more acrid odor of penance. It is eight steps down from the main level of the Graterford prison, a dark aging structure that sits on a rise overlooking the Perkiomen Creek, 31 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Graterford has 2,539 inmates, only 500 more than capacity; that is quite low for an American prison, since almost all are overflowing from an unchecked torrent of criminals.

The main walls at Graterford are 30 feet high, which is about as high as prison walls go. "To climb over with a rope you would have to have a terrific power-to-weight ratio," says Graterford public information officer Alan LeFebvre. Beetle has a very high power-to-weight ratio. After less than two years of serious lifting, he has bench pressed 425 pounds, deadlifted 750 and squatted 825 - one ton, total. But even is his muscles could get him to the top of a 30-foot rope, they couldn't stop bullets. A sign on the wall of the Pit proclaims WHEN MIGHT MAKES RIGHT, which is the principle upon which all prisons are built, an axiom even dogs understand.

Beetle sits on a bench and proudly holds out the certificate that documents his 825-pound squat, the state powerlifting record he set on Dec. 5, 1987 here in the Pit. He's a champion lifter who is unable to attend outside meets. That, of course, is one of the problems of being a convicted killer. But Beetle, at 32, isn't brash or mouthy like some of the younger lifters around him. He looks at the floor when he says softly, "I thought a lot about it being a pity - being in here. I could've learned it all out there, but I bypassed that."

Beetle is black, as is every other lifter in the room. And though the American penal system has a disproportionate number of inmates who are from minorities, Beetle can't blame race for his troubles. He played football at Cheyney (Pa.) State for two seasons but "got messed up with drinking, mostly," he says, and let the bad guys he hung around with back in Philly "dictate what I did."

As he climbs under the bar at the squat rack, he looks as hard and dense as a cast-iron june bug. BEETLE is tattooed on his huge left biceps; it's impossible to imagine a better nickname for the man. He does 10 quick squats with 135 pounds, then steps back and mumbles instructions to the inmates around him. They're working on their own projects, but they defer to him. "He's definitely a new kind of hero." Graterford assistant weight coach Felton wrote in a note he appended to Beetle's aforementioned letter. Other inmates have begun to peer through the grimy window in the hallway overlooking the Pit. Beetle has had some fame. He has been written up in local newspapers for his feats. And now Felton is narrating the scene for a prison video crew taping Beetle's workout for broadcast on the in-house cable TV channel.

Like most prison recreation officials, Felton believes deeply in the value of sports for inmates. "A lot of prisoners start out thinking, 'It's you against the weight,' " he says, "But it's not. It's you against you. Like life. That's something men must learn."

Ford, who's serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, and Ryan (the General) put more weight on the bar for the Beetle. Ryan who is missing a front tooth and is serving 12 1/2 to 30 years for murder and aggravated assault is a huge man who competes in the 275-pound class. He says that he's addicted to powerlifting: "I have no choice. I can't stop. Like those runners you hear about."

Beetle squats quickly five times with 315 pounds, then does four reps with 500. Five hundred pounds is the point at which a standard Olympic bar, such as the one in use here, starts to bow.

Beetle walks away from the rack and carefully wraps his knees with bandages for support. Sweat beads that look like blisters appear on his forehead. "If I don't get out, I will continue to lift and try to inspire kids not to choose this rout," he says, "I could tell them about prison life, about not having an identity. I could tell them about the pressure. I could tell them that, in here, you're not really considered human any more."

Stop for a moment and think about this: Killers lifting weights, getting stronger, outgrowing their clothes (Beetle is and expert tailor, which enables him to alter his prison garb to fit as he grows brawnier), men of violence developing the means to commit further violence. Terrifying , eh? Guards at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Hawaii won't even let most of the inmates get near the shiny new Universal weight machine in the yard. "The guards don't want the prisoners to be bigger than they are," says OCCC administrator Iramina. Yet athletics may be the most beneficial aspect of prison life. And so much of it starts with lifting. Getting stronger . First physically, then mentally. What could be more primitive or therapeutic than hoisting something heavy?

Still, Beetle isn't sure he wants to be a hero for his efforts. A champion, yes. But he knows you do time alone, that fans and flatterers can't help, that trophies are just junk. If he stays inside for the rest of his life, as he might, all the records he sets will be only markers of the passing time, like the myriad pencil slashes on the walls of the Pit. Former Georgia State Prison convict and current religious author-lecturer Morris says that far from supporting - much less idolizing - one another, prisoners are normally antagonistic toward their fellows. "They hate each other," says Morris. "Inmates usually pull for outsiders. That's something people don't understand. "Are Beetle's fellow inmates for him or against him? Does it make any difference how they feel?

Beetle squats with 600 pounds. Then 725. His face looks as though it might explode. He tells the others to put 800 pounds on the bar.

Beetle stands under the bar and stares into nothingness. Some inmates insult his manhood. They hoot and scream. "He's tightening his belt," Felton says quietly to the video camera's built in mike. "He's lifting the straps of his suit....."

Beetle grabs the bar, lets it sink into his unpadded shoulders and takes two tiny steps backward. His entire body shakes. He drops quickly into a squat, and the wraps look as though they are cutting his legs in half. He slowly rises, veins bulging like baby snakes on his temples and forearms, the weight bouncing slightly on his shoulders. It is hard to tell if the screaming inmates are rooting for him to rise or to crash to the floor. "Never surrender!" yells Smash. "Make a way!"

Beetle quivers and strains and, slowly, ever so slowly, stands up straight and puts the bar back on the rack. He has lifted the front end of a small car. His eyes are still not precisely focused. An inmate quickly unwraps his knees. Within seconds the din dies away and the others continue their workouts as though nothing has happened. But for an instant there, Beetle looked as if he were free.


Unfortunately, most prisons don't have as enough money to run sports programs as sophisticated as Pleasanton's. At state prisons it's common for all recreational activities, including crafts and music as well as sports, to be funded by proceeds from the inmate-run canteen, and a $50,000-a-year budget is considered lavish. Still, the National Correctional Recreation Association (NCRA), an underfunded nonprofit organization that serves as the athletic clearing house for more than 200 prisons, clings to the idealism of its stated goal of raising "inmate morale by providing healthy activity which may help engender socially acceptable attitudes and conduct among the men, and to arouse the interest of the inmates in recreation to an extent that they will continue this type of activity following their release from prison."

In other words, the NCRA would like prisoners to play sports, stay calm and remain that way one they get out. Wouldn't we all? A single prison riot such as the one at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Sante Fe in 1980 that cost 33 inmates their lives and caused $19 million damage, can justify a lot of peacekeeping recreation programs. But though sports may be great for keeping things cool inside, do the fundamentals of teamwork and winning and losing with grace carry over to the real world? Nobody knows.

Brown , the recreation director at the state prison in Jackson, Ga. says, "Very rarely do these guys change, and even if they do, it's nothing drastic. And they sure won't change overnight just because they're playing basketball."

But Montgomery, an NCRA official and recreation supervisor at the Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington Ky., thinks otherwise. "What the inmates have to do is play with a purpose," he says, "Statistics show that over 80% of all crimes were committed during the criminal's leisure time. Idleness, as they say, is the devil's workshop. So we need to give them something they can do during leisure time on the outside rather than drink and take drugs.

......... Like many prisoners who play sports, Longnecker started out lifting weights. "If I hadn't been able to lift, I wouldn't have had any way to relieve my tensions," he says.

And if he couldn't relieve his tensions?

"Somebody would get hurt." He shrugs at the logical simplicity of what he has said. "It's not just me," he continues, "I was in a riot at Chino that started because there weren't enough weights to go around. There was a waiting line, and tension built up over waiting to get to the weight pile so you could lose that tension by lifting weights. It was a paradoxical situation. What every prison needs is more equipment, like they have at El Reno. That's what McIntosh did. That place has tons of weight. I mean, literally, you measure it in tons."

McIntosh stands gazing proudly out at the 10-acre athletic complex n the vast El Reno yard. This is the largest and probably best-organized prison rec facility in the country. Nearly a thousand inmates engage in everything from basketball to soccer, with scarcely a guard visible. This is where Longnecker frolicked and inmates still remember him fondly. Red Dog pushes his pony tail aside and reflects on his biker buddy. "I don't think he would have stayed here longer just to play - but he'd have thought about it."

McIntosh strides into the immaculate El Reno gym and points out the glass backboards, the snap-back rims, the bleachers, and the electric scoreboard. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he says. He's the king here, and given his size, that role suits him well.

Intramural teams are playing hoops, one after the other in an unbroken stream of competition. There are guys with bizarre hairdos and earrings and hideous tattoos, but there are no rough fouls and no one argues with the referees, who are also inmates. "They know if they fight they get locked up," says McIntosh. "On the street the rules change, But in here they like it if you lay down the rules." He shrugs and smiles. "It's a funny little web."

It is indeed. Following the rules equals freedom in a place that exists only to deprive you of your freedom. A contradiction to rival anything from Orwell's Brave New World, but at the moment deep inside the basement rec area of the state prison in Stillwater (MN), it's difficult to ponder such things while a man with pumped-up arms is staring at you hard enough to give you the chills. As it turns out, the man is in prison for executing three people in a drug deal, binding them with wire and then shooting each in the head. And he feels no remorse.

"You assault a guard, you get a year in solitary," says guard Foster, who watches the man walk away slowly, perhaps to the weight room. Like all guards at maximum security prisons, Foster is unarmed. But it would be safer, I suppose, if a guy like that didn't build himself up."

Three Stillwater guards talk at the control station. Near them is a broken Fussball table. It has been out of action since inmates ripped out the rods that move the little soccer players and made swords out of them. The guards mention a convict who got out last year, a guy who had killed somebody and then, they say, eaten his heart. "He killed his parole office after that and they found the victim's fingers in his pocket." says one of the guards. "Part of a cult."

Even with sports, you think, you could not do time. You know that now.


There are nearly 900,000 men and women in federal and state prisons and county and city jails in the U.S. The number has increased every year since 1973, and some experts are guessing the number will double in the next 10 years and then double again early in the next century. There are currently 32 million U.S. adults under some form of correctional supervision, be it probation, parole, or imprisonment. That's one out of every 55 U.S. residents 18 or older.

America has a big problem here. And if sport isn't the solution - or a least, part of it - law abiding citizens better hope it can buy us some time until one comes along.

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