FIT FOR RELEASE
With the UK prison system at breaking point, a new wave of smart fitness programmes is transforming jail culture and giving inmates a second chance. MH met the men and women creating change from the inside
MH goes inside to meet the men trying to rehabilitate criminals with reps and sets
Not many former convicts, once granted their freedom, would walk back into prison voluntarily.
But LJ Flanders made it his mission. Every morning at 8am, he would arrive at HMP Wandsworth in south London – one of the largest prisons in western Europe – to set up for the first of many fitness classes he’d be teaching that day. He would collect his keys, then unlock and relock the doors that led to his “gym”, a carefully risk-assessed basement space within the prison. At 9am, the men he’d be training would make their way down from their 10ft by 7ft cells.
During the first of his two-week trials, Flanders coached 105 prisoners – some as young as 18, others in their sixties. In the morning, inmates were led through an intensive, hour-long bodyweight session; afternoon classes offered lessons on nutrition and emotional resilience. Later on, inmates were invited to lead the workouts. Some were fairly new to training. One man turned up in the brogues he’d worn for his recent court appearance and had to ask around for a spare pair of trainers. Flanders never asked any of them what they were in for. “I find it better not to judge,” he says.
When I meet him in his shared office in central London, Flanders is busy on his laptop, prepping for a prison industry recruitment event called Unlocked Graduates. In 2016, Flanders founded Cell Workout, a social enterprise designed to improve prisoners’ physical and mental fitness. Ultimately, he says, he hopes to employ former inmates as instructors “on the outside”, coaching at-risk youth groups.
You might recognise Flanders from the Cell Workout book – an exercise bible for prisoners, later adopted by fans of minimalist bodyweight training. In it, you’ll see him performing various exercises in a sparse cell, with bars on the windows. Ultra-lean with a shaved head and a steely focus, he is very much the poster boy of “prison fitness”. During our meeting, one of the Unlocked Graduates students comes over to tell Flanders he has been following the programme with his sofa pushed against the wall to form a makeshift cell.
More recently, Flanders has turned his attention to rehabilitation, having received funding for his workshops as part of the Ministry of Justice’s Reducing Reoffending initiative. At times, he says, he still finds it strange being the man on
the other side of the cell door. “I actually feel like I’m back in prison,” he says of his job in Wandsworth, laughing. “Except I have my own set of keys – I’m a trusted member of staff now.”
At 21, Flanders “got into a fight [he] shouldn’t have”, which led to a 14-month sentence. Before prison, he wasn’t much of a gym-goer. “But you’ve got to occupy your time. I started exercising as often as possible. It was the best way to burn off energy and get a proper night’s sleep.”
On some days, Flanders spent up to 23 hours in his cell. He recalls feeling frustrated, desperate to find something constructive to do. And so he enrolled on a personal training course, later taking a job in the prison gym – “easily the most popular job in prison”.
On his release, he applied for a position at Virgin Active. He was lucky, but remembers the anxiety he felt when meeting employers as an ex-convict. “Trying to get work after being released isn’t that easy,” he says. “I know how worried people can be about it, because I was that person. Now I just want to give people the opportunities I had.”
This concern is not unwarranted. More than two-thirds of male inmates are unemployed in the four weeks before imprisonment, and it is estimated that only a quarter of those released find work in their first year outside. Lack of job opportunities leads to reoffending; it’s a vicious cycle. Most UK prisons struggle with overcrowding, with some holding 50% over the recommended level. Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, recently described the state of jails as “deeply disturbing”.
It’s no secret that education is the most effective solution to this problem. But when half of Britain’s prisoners are functionally illiterate, finding courses that engage them without intimidating them is no easy task. For this reason, sports and fitness qualifications are proving increasingly popular. Professor Rosie Meek is a psychologist who has studied the role of these programmes in the rehabilitation of young offenders for the past decade. She is now conducting a national review on the subject, at the request of the justice minister Phillip Lee.
Her studies have largely focused on sports such as football and rugby. In one of her videos on Youtube, young inmates in lime-green bibs – many of whom went on to get jobs in the sports sector – talk honestly about how team sports have improved their mental health and social skills, including by helping them deal with issues such as anger or ADHD. “Prisons can be extraordinarily grim and often violent places,” Meek says. “For many, visiting the prison gym, taking part in a sport or generally letting off steam is a crucial aspect of coping with incarceration.”
When Meek surveyed inmates about their reasons for taking part in sports qualification programmes, surprisingly few cited killing time or boredom. Almost a quarter of them said they felt a qualification would help them to avoid further crime on the outside, while 7% said they hoped it would lead to a “meaningful, fulfilling and enjoyable” career. It’s an investment that should more than pay off. Independent think tanks estimate that if careers training is made available to all prisoners, the government could save up to £1.4bn annually on the cost of reoffending.
It would be fair to call Lewis Bailey, 24, “a success story” of such programmes. When I meet him, he arrives with his friend and former cell mate Dre Hewitt, the two having just completed their Friday-night gym session. At this time, Bailey – once an inmate of HMPS Brixton and Thameside – has been out for six months and is leading fitness classes around London as a member of the Hard Yard collective. The social enterprise, which employed ex-offenders, has since closed due to a lack of funding.
“For the first few days after I came to Brixton, I’d only leave my cell for an hour and a half each day,” Bailey tells me. Then he found the prison gym. “I’m quite good at training, so people would ask me questions. It’s easier to start a conversation in the gym. It’s difficult with men. They think, ‘Why is this guy chatting to me?’ But in the gym, everyone’s got this mutual respect and understanding. You meet some nice people.”
“Quite good at training” may be an understatement. In Brixton, Bailey worked out three times a day – in the gym, in
“Prisons can be grim, violent places. The gym offers a crucial way of coping”
his cell, outside – and signed up for a football coaching programme. He did his best to follow a strict meal plan (“You pick out what you’re going to eat a week in advance, so if you put down chicken instead of pizza, you ain’t got no choice”) and planned his sessions meticulously. He and Hewitt kept a training schedule taped to the wall of the cell they shared; other inmates would check it to find out what they were up to. When they didn’t have access to the gym, they performed dips off the side of a chair, or even curled their mattresses.
Bailey – like everyone I talk to – is far removed from the prison-movie stereotype of the convict building muscle for the sake of intimidation. “My aim was never to get big,” he says. “It was to get fit – to be stronger, faster, more elite.” He is relentlessly positive, sometimes bafflingly so. “Everyone complains about this and that in jail,” he tells me. “But honestly? You can get a wicked routine in there.”
It was this attitude, presumably, that landed him a job with the Hard Yard: the brainchild of Frankie Bennett, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who founded it with personal trainer Beth Thayne. Both women were disheartened by the lack of opportunities for former offenders. “We believe mistakes in your past shouldn’t hold you back,” says Bennett. Bailey remembers Bennett pitching the company to him and his fellow inmates last year. Feeling he had nothing to lose, he emailed her after his release – and she decided to give him a shot. “I held my first class on the bank holiday weekend.” He smiles. “I remember that weekend well, because I went to carnival afterwards.” He now plans to study sports rehabilitation at university.
Improved employment prospects are arguably the least significant benefit of prison fitness programmes. They also offer quantifiable improvements to prisoners’ mental and physical health. Meek’s government review studied some of the participants in Flanders’s programme. Over just two weeks, threequarters reported a decrease in body fat, while positive changes to lung capacity and blood pressure were also recorded.
Far better than the physical changes, Flanders says, is the shift in perspective. “People really feel like they can achieve something while they are in jail. We’re giving people the tools to be autonomous. It’s about more than just fitness. It’s about personal development.”
In their first few days, Flanders says, participants often turn up late. With no real reason to get out of bed in the morning, they aren’t used to motivating themselves. In the second week, however, many turn up early, eager and energised. Self-motivation is a major factor for Flanders. “If you’re told you have to do something, you often resent it,” he says. He gives the example of smoking. In surveys handed out at the start of the programme, some reported craving cigarettes during and after training. By the end, these cravings had significantly subsided. “If we positioned the course as a way to stop smoking, it probably wouldn’t work so well,” he says. “We do things more subtly.”
Written feedback from the inmates seems to back up this approach. “[It feels like] working out with your friends, rather than an instructor, just shouting orders,” explains one. “It never felt like ‘you and
“For many inmates, the workouts are about more than fitness – they’re about personal development”
them’.” Another describes feeling like he was finally “coming back into [his] body”. “When you’re incarcerated and behind your door, your self-worth is depleted,” says a young inmate, Elijah. “Exercise gives you an opportunity to express yourself – to release your frustration.”
Whether a short-term boot camp can turn a man’s life around remains to be seen. But with both prison suicides and self-harm incidents at a record high (119 and 37,784 in 2016, respectively), it seems unwise to dismiss the idea.
This movement is part of a larger cultural shift. A couple of decades ago, physical activity wasn’t yet widely recognised as beneficial to mental health; prison fitness programmes were a harder sell and seen as far less necessary. It’s a change that Meek has noted, as well as some of the longerserving prison officers I speak to.
To see the effects of rehabilitation programmes myself, I take a tour of HMP Brixton. The prison has unusually strong links with the outside community: it was featured in Gordon Ramsay’s television series Gordon Behind Bars and is home to a public restaurant, the Clink, as well as the Bad Boys Bakery. Brixton also holds circuit-training classes, along with basketball games, spin classes, strongman competitions and a football coaching programme that’s partnered with Fulham FC. Its weights gym – very much spit and sawdust, with squat racks, benches and piles of dumbbells – holds 30 men at a time, though it’s hard to imagine it could accommodate that number comfortably. I’m told the inmates are good at sharing workout stations, and gym etiquette is carefully observed. We visit a classroom, where inmates studying for their PT qualification are following a lesson on anatomy. The prison library stocks copies of Men’s Health; they’re well thumbed.
The physical education instructors are greeted warmly by the inmates. They are, after all, their link to the gym – the most coveted space within these confines. As Dre Hewitt, Lewis Bailey’s former cell mate, explains: “You get butterflies going to the gym. And you’ve got [the instructors] keeping you up to date on the football scores or how Anthony Joshua’s fight went. They’re a link to the outside. They’re good people.”
Hewitt did his personal training course inside Brixton after the prison’s head of gym noted he had a passion for the subject and negotiated to get him out of his scaffolding course early. He describes the other inmates on the course as “family”. “People were motivated, because getting an NVQ in personal training feels realistic,” he explains. “It’s not something that’s alien to them… It’s embedded in their lifestyle. They’ve been doing it for years behind the doors.”
The inmates at Brixton are, in some ways, fortunate. There are many other men and women around the country who don’t have access to the same opportunities, and conditions in UK prisons are getting worse, not better. Strangely, though, the atmosphere in HMP Brixton feels relaxed. After a couple of hours, it’s easy to forget you’re one of the few people allowed to go home at night. Find LJ Flanders and his team on Instagram: @Cell_workout. To learn more about roles as a physical education instructor, or other specialist careers available to prison officers, visit: prisonandprobationjobs.gov.uk
ON THE UP 01\ PT and ex-convict LJ Flanders ( second from left) leads a group of prisoners through a bodyweight session in the bowels of HMP Wandsworth
03 BEHIND THESE WALLS 02\ Flanders devised Cell Workout out of necessity – training gave him a sense of purpose, and helped him to overcome the daily frustrations of prison life 03- 04\ Outside HMP Pentonville, where Flanders served his 14-month...
TRAIN HARD 05\ The wings of HMP Pentonville. Some inmates spend 23 hours a day in their cell 06- 08\ Flanders’s training workshop at Wandsworth Prison, which focuses on mental as well as physical wellbeing. “It makes me want to have goals,” one...