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: pris­o­nand­pro­ba­tion­

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...

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