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Prison Weight Lifting is a Nonsense Issue

Across the country Republicans have seized on prison weigh-lifting as a no risk political "issue" to make big hoopla over. The corporate media has abetted this by running sensationalist stories of prisoners bulking up by pumping iron. So far Mississippi and Wisconsin have banned weights in prison. The California legislature has required that the DOC submit a plan so prisoners can use weights but not build strength or bulk. The Washington state legislature is going to consider the matter this term, it is being pushed by Mike Padden, the anti-abortion Republican from Spokane and Ida Ballasiotes, the professional prisoner basher who heads the "corrections committee" in the state house.

Prisoners have been lifting weights in Washington for over forty years. How many people outside prison knew or cared about this until the Republicans and media made it an issue? None. Weight lifting has been popular in prison for decades with both prisoners and their keepers for several reasons.

Prisoners like to pump iron because it represents an opportunity for intense work outs and solid exercise year round, even when prison yards are closed due to rain, fog, snow, etc. Some prisoners lift weights as a means to release tension, build discipline, etc. In other words, pretty much the same reasons non-prisoners lift weights. Where Washington state prisoners in population are locked in their cells 20 or 22 hours a day, an hour on a weight deck is the only meaningful exercise they will get. Prisons tend to be sedentary in nature with little opportunity for movement or activity. Without exercise the health problems associated with such a lifestyle combined with the environmental dangers associated with prison (inadequate ventilation, fat and cholesterol saturated food, etc.) are amplified. Regular exercise such as weight lifting boosts the immune systems, reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease and improves peoples overall health. With a rapidly aging prisoner population prisoners should be encouraged to maintain their health - not deprived of the opportunity to do so.

For prison officials, weight lifting is popular because it takes up very little room, is easy to supervise by guards, gives prisoners something to do that isnt illegal or dangerous and provides a privilege that can be withdrawn for misbehavior. By constitutional law prisoners must be provided with an opportunity for at least one hour of exercise which allows for strenuous workouts to reduce large muscle deterioration. Weight lifting allows prisoner officials to meet this legal obligation.

Politicians wanting to take the weights claim they are concerned about "costs" and that taxpayers shouldnt be paying for weights. They know full well that is a lie. All recreation equipment in Washington state prisons, as well as in most other prisons in the country, is bought and paid for by the prisoners themselves. The money comes from the profits made from selling goods to prisoners from a commissary (soda pop, cigarettes, etc.) at inflated prices. Not a penny of taxpayer money goes towards weights and other recreation items. Another reason that weight lifting is popular in prisons is because it is extremely cheap, consisting mainly of iron weights that rarely need to be replaced.

The reality is that prison weight-rooms are not equipped with any type of state of the art exercise equipment. Prison weight rooms are hardly comparable to a free world gym or exercise club. When politicians claim that prisoners shouldnt be able to lift weights when free people have topay a gym to do so, remember that we are paying to lift weights, quite literally with years of our lives. Nothing is "free" in prison, it is all paid for in one way or another.

So, if the two parties most affected by prison weight lifting, guards and prisoners, support it why is this an issue? Because Republican politicians see it as an easy slam dunk to garner publicity and distract voters from real issues such as their agenda to reduce taxes for the wealthy, limit abortion and otherwise make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Neither the democrats nor other politicians are going to take any type of stand on this issue because prisoners arent a constituency anyone has to cater to, being poor and unable to vote to boot. The real agenda is take away what modest privileges prisoners have and replace it with idleness which has historically led to violence in already overcrowded prison systems.

Their political cover is that weight lifting is a public safety hazard because "criminals are bulking up." Anyone familiar with weight lifting or exercise knows this is a crock. First off, when was the last time someone was attacked by a weight-lifting ex-con? Secondly, however much bulk someone puts on (many weight-lifters train for tone and not bulk) it is quickly lost if the person doesnt continue working out. Given the proven health benefits of over 40 years of prison weight lifting, its detractors have speculation and sheer demagoguery. But, like all other aspects of the hoopla, I cant bring myself to call it a "debate," facts and reason have nothing to do with the matter. Will a ban on weight lifting stop prisoners from "bulking up"? Ill be doing pushups and calisthenics as will many others who want to stay in shape. The best shape Ive ever been in was after getting out of any basic training, did we lift weights? No, just a lot of calisthenics. Guess what legislators have prisoners in so called "boot camps" doing? You got it, a lot of calisthenics. So whats next? A law banning pushups in prison but not boot camp? Once the weights are gone, what next? Within a year what voter or free person will even remember anything about weights in prison? We know the answer to that one, none.

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