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The Last of the Convict Musclemen
GEORGE’S redemption starts at exactly 2pm every day. A battleship-gray sky roils above the achingly high 16ft fences coiled with concertinaed razor wire and 100 ft sandstone-colored guard towers containing prison officers behind bullet proof glass armed with rifles. These are the features of daily life at the Montana State Penitentiary.
Amid the other cons – murderers, rapists, racist prison gang members, kleptomaniac drug addicts – George Demers has an ascetic economy of movement and speech, an almost regal presence, as he moves through the exercise yard to the weight stacks and barbells. The other cons, grimacing while pumping dumbbells or slouching against the wall of the hut in the yard where the weights are kept, murmur to each other, warily. The prison yard, where prisoners mingle, is the most likely place where scores are settled and you are most likely to get a shiv in the back for a misdirected glance, a perceived slight or an unpaid debt.
This Tuesday morning they all avoid contact with George’s deep-hued blue eyes. With his brawny, body builder’s physique and angry, stubble of ginger hair he is known for protecting new, young inmates from being gang-raped or inducted into prison gangs. The guards often put vulnerable new inmates straight from Fish Row (as convicts call the cellblock were new inmates are put before being transferred into the main population) into this unlikely savior’s cell so that he can watch over them like a shepherd. “I won’t let a young man come into this environment and be preyed upon sexually,” he had said to me earlier in the day, his eyes humbly, downcast. He is an unlikely man of honor in a viper’s nest of dishonor.
Today, he slips 600lbs on to the burnished length of the barbell. 500lbs is the weight it takes for an Olympic barbell to start to bow. The Montana mountain air up here at 5000ft above sea level is brisk. George draws in a huge draught, heavily, before squatting in his prison issue denim, thick, callused hands grasping the bar. He rocks gently three times and then explodes, hoisting the barbell aloft. His face turns a violent crimson, the sinews in his neck snap like straining rope and his eyes burst from his skull. He tremors for a few seconds and then sets the weight down, the ground quaking as he does.
There is a penitent quality to the muscle burn and pain he feels. George DeMers, 44, has so far done 18 years behind these walls since he first came through the gate as a callow 24 year old. But that is not even a quarter of the hundred he has to serve for killing his girlfriend after she admitted infidelity and he erupted in a violent conniption of black, murderous rage. At the time, he was, by his own admission, “a violent drug dealer” and a “heroin addict.” He says: “I’m sorry about my crime and my victim. Every day I am sorry.”
But in a remarkable volte-face George renounced tobacco and alcohol, forgoing the illegal prison-brewed Pruno and prison chewing tobacco, when he entered in prison. He even rejected meat, turning full vegan. Instead, he became obsessed with bodybuilding and weight training, laying his hands on as many books and magazines that he could. “I studied anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and muscle structure,” he says.
It wasn’t easy at first. He was attacked a couple of times in the yard by some violent inmates who knew his victim and wanted revenge. And the gym at the time was known as a dangerous hang-out in the prison that attracted a bad crowd. “One guy tried to stab me while I was on the bench press,” he says.
But over time, George fought back with ferocity until they left him alone. He went from 150lbs of heroin junkie to putting on almost 100lbs of muscle and tipping the scales at 240lbs. He broke a prison record and deadlifted 700lbs, three quarters of a ton, winning a power lifting competition. Terrified that he might have his weight lifting privileges taken away, he has had a perfect prison record for good behavior. He has only had one write up for misconduct during the length of his sentence. And that was for being in the wrong area at the wrong time.
“I have studied philosophy, looked into all the different religions, read the Bible, the Koran,” he had told me earlier in the day. “But I haven’t got as much out of any of that as I have lifting. Weights to me are spiritual,” he says.
Yet prison weightlifting in America has never been more controversial. In the early 90’s prison was viewed not as a rehabilitative tool but punishment. Arizona was the first state to remove all weight lifting equipment from their prisons. “The public saw inmates going in bad and coming out bigger and badder,” said one Arizona corrections officer. Other states quickly followed: Califorinia, Oklahoma, Alaska, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Mississippi. Some outlawed upper body enhancement others, like Louisiana, restrict inmates’ weights to 100lbs. Others forbid free weights declaring that they could be used as weapons.
Each year, politicians, who try to make political capital attempt as tough, law and order proponents try to ban weights in prisons. Back in 1999 Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham’ tried to pass the ‘No Frills Prison Act,’ which would ban any weight lifting on a federal level alongside tobacco consumption while also lowering the quality of prison food. However, and with rich irony, he became a convict himself shortly afterwards. After copping a plea to tax evasion and conspiring to pocket $2.4 million in bribes this year he was sentenced to eight years. He must have been pleased that his bill didn’t go through
But arguments are made: convicts muscle up and are thus able to overpower guards, when get they get out of prison they are brawnier and more dangerous, weight training makes convicts more aggressive in places already swimming in testosterone and aggression. And even the weights can be used as weapons or as escape tools.
Yet weight training in prison has a rich legacy. It can be traced back as far back as the 1940’s. Some prisons even ran power lifting meets where members of the public would come in to compete against the inmates.
Are the weights in American prisons making prisoners stronger and meaner? Or is there, like George, redemption and an easing of prison tensions with a vigorous, weight-training regime?
The Montana State Prison nestles in the autumnal brown folds of the prairies ringed by snow-capped mountains that soar to 10 000ft. You can just make out the glint of razor wire and sodium flare of bright watch lights from the main street of the one-stop-light mountain town of Deer Lodge where raw-boned men in Stetsons drive the main drag in dusty pick up trucks.
Montana was the last great frontier in the wild west days of the 1860’s. Frontier justice was tough and brutal and the first prison to house the ‘cut throats, thieves and fast buck artists to whom murder suicide thievery and cruelty were facts of life’ was built in Deer Lodge. The Montana prison has housed the worst the wild west has to offer for 150 years.
From within the double perimeter fence visitors drive past the imposing grey slab of the maximum security block. Planted to the side of the building is a cream-colored trailer home. Unlikely as it may look it is a death chamber, the final resting stop for those on death row who are eventually put to death. In August this year the prison executed David Dawson by lethal injection. He had murdered Monica and David Rodstein and their _11-year-old son Andrew at a motel in Billings, Montana, in 1986.
“All the inmates wanted to know when he was executed if this was going to cut into their rec and weights time,” says William Sanders, the prison’s recreation officer in charge of weight lifting. The 1300 inmate prison is somewhat unique in that it offers power lifting competitions to inmates, in July and December every year. Those who take part join the Mind and Muscle Barbell Club. “Weight lifting is the closest these guys ever get to being free,” he says. “To be honest these guys could do what they wanted in here if they really had a mind too, but weights offer them release from stress and an outlet from their frustrations.”
The prison is divided into High Security and Low Security, each having their own gyms but the latter an outdoor weights area too in the exercise yard. In the High Side gym, a few tattooed inmates are playing basketball while arrayed around the walls are bars, weights and machines. A gaggle of slouch-shouldered Hispanic inmates with baggy trousers worn low see my camera and immediately drop what they are doing and stride out of the gym, scowling. The smell is sweaty and acrid, there’s a creeping tension in the air. Two white inmates with tattoos of norse gods done in blue ink, unmistakable jailhouse tattooing with ink from a biro pen, pump away at the lever incline furiously.
Busy pushing iron on the preacher curl, dressed in prison issue beige scrubs is Larry Seybert, 47, an ox of a man with a hoarse voice who is serving 30 years for robbing a country club at gunpoint while on crystal meth. He just received another ten on top of that for fighting with prison officers. Because of this he has only just been released from the maximum security unit where he has spent the past two and a half years. While there he was in lock down for 23 and a half hours a day, couldn’t leave his cell without being shackled with an escort and, crucially, had no access to weights.
“I hit friggin rock bottom man,” he says, his huge shoulders slumping. “It was like coming off drugs, I couldn’t get my endorphin rush without the gym. I felt terrible. Now I have been released every day is like a holiday to me.” To emphasis this he puts in twenty more vigorous curls on the barbell.
But perhaps the best indication of how weight training works in practice is the self-policing inmates do to make sure they keep weight privileges. “They would take this stuff away in a heartbeat if there were problems with it,” says Larry. “The cardinal rule is that we police ourselves here. If one fucks it up, they fuck it up for everyone.” He narrows his eyes, and gives a throaty laugh: “If someone messed it up for everyone he would want a transfer to another prison quickly.”
The one incidence of violence and abuse of recreation equipment was when 51 year old inmate Daniel Johnson clubbed to death AJ Burgess with a horseshoe in the prison exercise yard. He narrowly avoided the death penalty but received life without parole. Horseshoes are used in a game where they the object is to toss them over a short pole. The game was banned for a short time but now inmates are allowed to play again while Johnson languishes in maximum security.
Outside, on the low side, convicts are working out in the exercise yard. Despite the glamorous, Hollywood images of six-packed cons shirtlessly pumping iron, the reality is very different. A lot of these guys are older, with straining paunches, hardly the buffed up cons beloved of TV film directors.
Yet weight lifting provides a much-needed release from the tensions of prison. “You know when you release the pressure valve on a truck and release all that building steam?” says Randolph William, 31, a transferee from prison in California. “Well that is what weights are like for us. Number one leisure activity here is TV, the second is weights.”
Professor Steve Edwards at the Department of Applied Health and Psychology at Oklahoma State University, also a member of the US Olympic Committee Registry in Sport Psychology, agrees. “Weight lifting requires an enormous expenditure of energy which means prisoners get all their frustrations out,” he says. “There is really nothing about it which would lead to someone being more aggressive other than it has other ancillary meanings and reinforces ideas of masculinity and leadership, being bigger, stronger, faster. To say something is wrong with it is like blaming the pen when the words don’t come out right. It can be used for good or evil.”
But does it produce more dangerous criminals? George is quick to refute those claims. “It’s absolutely not making a stronger criminal,” he says, pausing to chat during his work out. “The most dangerous people in this environment are the 150lb guys of average size. They are the most feared in here because they are ones who will stab you and fill you full of holes. Most of your lifers have been engaged in the philosophy of weight lifting. They are the most well-behaved and docile in here. On the outside, it only takes a guy to be able to pull 2lbs which is how much it takes to pull a trigger.”
There are others who “get half an inch on their arms and an attitude” but that is it, says George. Many opponents to weight lifting cite the fact that it makes inmates more aggressive along with producing more testosterone in a place already dangerously brimming over with the stuff. While it has been demonstrated that a work out may produce small amounts of testosterone it is minimal and certainly not above normal levels. According to endocrinologist Richard Spark, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard: “Weight lifting absolutely does not produce more testosterone.”
And the rigid discipline needed for a body-building or power lifting regime is not something that sits well with impulsive criminals most of whom were high on drugs or alcohol when they committed their crimes. “Every time they show an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie the gym gets busy the next day,” says George with a laugh. “They think, ‘If I hit the iron I’ll look like that.’ They think it’s a quick process and in a couple of weeks they will be looking like Arnold. But then they find out it is hard, that it requires discipline and hard work - well - a lot them don’t like that part and stop lifting.”
But for those inmates serious about weight training, a regime can be hard to maintain. Inmates have ‘rec time’ for fifty minutes twice a day at 2pm and 6pm. But as most have prison jobs, the first shift is usually missed giving only 50 minutes a day which is not much for a serious work out. Three years ago they were allowed creatine and other supplements but this was stopped due to pressure from politicians with the ‘bigger criminals’ argument. Yet George, as a vegan, finds it hard to get the protein he needs. He also claims that the “terrible prison food” of high starch and high fat is designed to keep prisoners sluggish and lacks crucial protein for building muscles. And when he first arrived in prison, the inmates just copied the exercises each did, leading to bad form and poor instruction. Over time, George has helped and advised.
In America’s notoriously dangerous prison system, gang-dominated and racially segregated, any relief from the constant threat of violence and frustration of prison life is welcomed. America incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. In the US one out of every 31 adults is in custody at any one time and between 1995 and 2005 the prison population has grown by 3.4% every year to well over 2m. They need something to do.
As one inmate, Jason Larcam, a member of a white prison gang, said to me: “If they took our weights away there would be numerous fights in here day in and day out. Everyone would be on edge. It would be a serious, serious problem. Maybe some guy doesn’t like the way I just looked at him. Instead of being able to hit the weight pile he wants to hit me. It would cause problems not just for the guards but us too.” He pulls up his sleeve to reveal two lightning bolts, earned, he says, for stabbing another inmate.
Prison is already a dangerous, violent place, having no catharsis for that frustration and stress can only make it more so. “The gym is a good place to deal with stress, an institutional lifestyle, dealing with their crimes and thinking about repaying their debt to society,” says warden Mike Mahoney. He is strident in his defence of weight lifting. “In corrections you have to look at the product you are putting back on the street,” he says. “80% of the people in my institution are back out again. What you have to look at is what you are putting in their toolbox. If they are just out breaking rocks then you are not putting tools in their toolbox. The weights help with their self-esteem and they can have a goal and see the results in the mirror. It teaches them to manage their time. They can do this for the rest of their life, on the outside too. When they get out they can do this which beats the hell out of hanging round with the wrong crowd, drinking and doing drugs.”
The warden may well be one of the more forward thinking in the American penal system. Yet on paper, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Weightlifting teaches discipline and character, giving a sense of self-esteem, it can be used to control inmates with the carrot and stick of privileges, reduces tensions leading to better inmate and guard morale, keeps inmates busy, reduces healthcare costs, reduces depression, offers inmates something to do on release, fosters camaraderie (spotting lifts) and greatly reduces crime inside prison.
Yet still it is threatened. Prison boxing once thrived in America but that too has been outlawed in all prisons. Weight lifting may soon go the same way.
But for now George, in Montana, and the other inmates, should be secure in the knowledge that their weights are safe, unlike other state’s prisons. George was denied parole this year. Instead, he was driven back to the prison from the hearing to serve out the other 80 or so years of his sentence. Through weight training he has found a sense of self-worth, discipline and a sense of redemption. At the end of 50 minutes, his muscles turgid with lactic acid, red-faced and fatigued, George makes the short walk back to his cell in B Unit. Unlike other convicts’ cells jammed with posters of bikini clad women, hotrod cars and polaroids of loves ones, the walls of George’s cell are completely bare. It feels more like a monk’s retreat. “I chose not to decorate it, because,” says George, with an unwavering gaze. “This is not my home. It’s a temporary stop.”